A federal court jury has rejected a series of civil-rights claims against three State Police troopers accused of racially profiling and unlawfully detaining a black student while he was visiting the French Quarter.
Following a four-day trial in New Orleans, the jury late Monday awarded no compensation to the plaintiff, Lyle Dotson, even though it found that one of the troopers violated the young man's Fourth Amendment rights during the 2015 arrest.
Despite the lack of damages, an attorney for Dotson, Jim Craig, said the verdict vindicated "Dotson's right not to be seized by a Louisiana state trooper for the purpose of taking his picture."
"We are studying the verdict and plan to seek further review," Craig said. "The people of New Orleans should be alarmed that the State Police are a threat to the constitutional rights of law-abiding residents of — and visitors to — New Orleans."
A State Police spokesman declined to comment Tuesday.
The Louisiana State Police routinely harass and use excessive force against black people in …
The trial stemmed from a sweeping civil-rights lawsuit that claimed troopers routinely use excessive force against black people in the French Quarter. The plaintiffs, represented by the MacArthur Justice Center, alleged that State Police condone the "unjustified harassment of African-Americans in New Orleans, including the detention and arrest of African-Americans without probable cause."
The lawsuit cited several controversies involving troopers assigned to New Orleans, including the violent traffic stop of trumpet player Shamarr Allen in 2014 and the later arrest of a barber who claimed he was racially profiled and beaten by two troopers who mistook him for a black suspect.
A significant part of the case was decided before the trial even began, when U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan ruled the plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate a pattern of civil-rights violations and dismissed Dotson's claims against Mike Edmonson, the former longtime State Police superintendent. Edmonson had been accused of failing to properly train his troopers and turning a blind eye to their aggressive tactics.
But the proceedings opened a window into the disparate rule books governing the State Police and the New Orleans Police Department. The NOPD is subject to a strict federal consent decree that forbids racial profiling and allows officers to make investigatory stops only when they have "reasonable suspicion that a person has been, is, or is about to be engaged in the commission of a crime."
The State Police began patrolling the French Quarter on a regular basis in 2014 following a high-profile shooting on Bourbon Street that killed one woman and wounded nine people. Since then, troopers have assisted the NOPD in seizing weapons and drugs and investigated a host of other crimes at a time when the NOPD has struggled to recruit new officers.
"We were never told not to do our job," Edmonson said in a recent deposition. City officials, he added, "clearly knew what we brought to the table" when they requested assistance patrolling the French Quarter.
One of troopers named in the lawsuit, Sgt. Huey McCartney, said in a deposition last year that his NOPD counterparts have become afraid to perform basic aspects of their job that are "totally legal." He blamed the consent decree for the killing last year of Marcus McNeil, a New Orleans police officer who used his stun gun on a suspect before being fatally shot.
"It seems like the NOPD officers were afraid of getting in trouble based on the consent decree," McCartney said. "There's going to be part of me that's always going to wonder if that man would have been alive if it weren't for the consent decree."
Craig, the plaintiff's attorney, called upon the New Orleans City Council and the new city administration to reassess the State Police presence in New Orleans.
"The people of New Orleans should be alarmed that the state troopers patrolling the streets of New Orleans refuse to acknowledge or abide by the basic protections outlined in the NOPD consent decree," Craig said.
The civil trial turned on the question of whether the troopers violated Dotson's rights when they booked him on battery of a police officer, a count that was later dismissed and expunged from the Indiana man's record.
The arrest happened shortly after Dotson arrived in New Orleans with his father, a Ball State University professor who was leading an architecture field trip. Dotson, who was 18 at the time, became separated from his group on Bourbon Street and was on the phone with his father when he was detained by three uniformed troopers — McCartney, Calvin Anderson and Tagie Journee.
The troopers said Dotson met the description of another black man who appeared to be "shadowing" an undercover drug transaction that State Police were conducting in the French Quarter.
They grabbed the iPhone out of Dotson's hand, questioned him and, according to Dotson, refused to give their names or badge numbers. The lawsuit claimed the troopers pushed Dotson against a building, handcuffed him and searched him in an effort to identify him.
The confrontation escalated when McCartney tried to take a picture of Dotson, who told the troopers they did not have his permission to take his photograph. McCartney claimed Dotson kicked him twice, while the young man insisted he only "raised his knee" to avoid the camera.
The jury rejected Dotson's claims that he was detained without "reasonable suspicion" and that he was arrested without probable cause. Without awarding any damages, it found that McCartney violated his rights "by continuing to detain (him) after any reasonable suspicion for the stop had dissipated."