The Louisiana State Police routinely harass and use excessive force against black people in the French Quarter, a civil rights law firm alleged Friday in a lawsuit, citing what it called the "unconstitutional and baseless" arrest last year of a young man visiting New Orleans on an architecture field trip.
The MacArthur Justice Center filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in New Orleans.
It said the arrest of 18-year-old Lyle Dotson formed part of "a pattern and practice of aggressive, unjustified harassment of African-Americans in the city of New Orleans, including the detention and arrest of African-Americans without probable cause and the use of excessive and unjustified force against them."
The 30-page lawsuit lists a number of controversies involving state troopers in New Orleans in recent years, including the violent traffic stop in 2014 of trumpet player Shamarr Allen and the arrest last year of Michael Baugh, a New Orleans barber who claimed he was racially profiled and beaten by two troopers who mistook him for a black suspect.
Dotson's arrest also was the result of mistaken identification by the State Police, the lawsuit claims.
"Rather than uphold their obligation to make the French Quarter a safe and pleasant destination for visitors to the city of New Orleans, the Louisiana State Police's unconstitutional and racially driven policies and practices served to do precisely the opposite, endangering and injuring individuals who have chosen to come to New Orleans," the lawsuit states.
Maj. Doug Cain, a State Police spokesman, said the agency had not reviewed the lawsuit Friday and declined to comment on the allegations. But he said State Police are "very proud of the work the troopers are doing in the city of New Orleans and the support they're providing to the New Orleans Police Department."
"We've had some great successes," Cain added, "but certainly anyone who brings concerns to our attention, we're going to look into them fully."
The lawsuit also cites the disparate rule books governing the State Police and the NOPD. The latter remains subject to a federal consent decree that forbids racial profiling and allows officers to make investigatory stops only if they have "reasonable suspicion that a person has been, is, or is about to be engaged in the commission of a crime."
The NOPD "is subject to a federal consent decree and must answer to the public through the mayor and City Council," Jim Craig, co-director of the MacArthur Justice Center, said in a statement. "But the Louisiana State Police are playing by their own rules."
Dotson, described in the lawsuit as "a thoughtful, reserved young man" from Indiana "whose principal activities in high school included the Chess Club and the Latin Club," was booked on allegations he assaulted a trooper after being detained by State Police. That count was later dismissed and expunged from the young man's record.
The arrest happened Oct. 7, 2015, shortly after Dotson arrived in New Orleans with his father, a professor of architecture at Ball State University who was leading a class field trip. The group stopped after 8 p.m. to view the famous courtyard of Pat O'Brien's, a bar young Dotson was barred from entering because he was underage, the lawsuit says.
The young man got lost on Bourbon Street trying to rejoin the group and phoned his father, who was still on the line with him when three uniformed troopers — Huey McCartney, Calvin Anderson and Tagie Journee — approached the younger Dotson "very aggressively, without warning, and without announcing themselves," the lawsuit alleges.
"Lyle believed he was being attacked," the lawsuit states. He "had a momentary sense of relief when he realized the people grabbing him were real police officers, not street performers in costume. This relief was short-lived, as the officers were not there to offer him assistance but were intent on causing harm."
According to the lawsuit, the troopers approached Dotson after an undercover colleague, Rene Bodet, identified Dotson as a person who had been following Bodet "for an extended period of time." The lawsuit refers to video footage of another black man, wearing clothing similar to Dotson's, who had been wandering up and down Bourbon Street.
The lawsuit claims the troopers singled out Dotson based upon his race while disregarding several key differences between the two men in question. The man in the video had facial hair, the lawsuit says, while Dotson was clean-shaven.
"The only thing the two men had in common were that they were both wearing red bottoms and black tops," the lawsuit says, "and that they were African-American men."
One of the troopers grabbed the iPhone out of Dotson's hand. The young man's father, Olon, "heard his son exclaim 'whoa,' and also believed his son was being attacked," the lawsuit says. "Professor Dotson made repeated attempts to call Lyle back with no answer. He became increasingly alarmed and concerned for Lyle’s safety as time passed without being able to reach his son."
The younger Dotson tried to explain he was a high school student looking for his father. But the troopers continued to detain him, the lawsuit says, and refused to give their names or badge numbers. One of the troopers is accused of telling the young man his name was Michael Jordan, the basketball star.
At some point, the troopers "pushed Lyle against a building, scraping his arm," handcuffed him and searched him "three to four times," the lawsuit alleges. "The (troopers) had no justification or basis for grabbing Lyle or restricting his movements in the course of seeking to identify him."
Things escalated when one of the troopers, McCartney, tried to photograph Dotson with McCartney's phone, allegedly at the behest of Bodet. The trooper wrote in his report that Dotson kicked him twice, but the lawsuit says Dotson merely "raised his knee to block his face from the camera" after the trooper stooped down to take a shot of him.
Dotson's father finally found his son at the 8th District police station, handcuffed to a bench. The young man spent the night in the New Orleans jail and appeared in Municipal Court the following day. He was later released on a cash bond, and the case ultimately was dismissed.
"Lyle Dotson did nothing other than stand on a public street in the French Quarter, the lawsuit says. "But on his first morning in New Orleans, he found himself standing in front of his father, his father’s students and the public in Municipal Court, wearing prison orange."
Advocate staff writer Matt Sledge contributed to this report.