A trial that began on January 17th came to a close under a unanimous ruling on the 23rd that a Eugene police sergeant used excessive force to arrest an environmental activist who videotaped their confrontation in front of a downtown bank in 2009.

U.S. District Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin had ruled even before the trial began that the officer had violated Joshua Schlossberg’s rights by viewing the contents of his video camera without first obtaining a warrant. This left the jury to rule only on whether the incident had been one of excessive force and whether or not the officer had acted according to the law in the overall incident.

The officer in question, Sgt. Bill Solesbee, told Schlossberg that since he was not moving on the sidewalk, his stand was blocking pedestrian traffic and since he did not have a permit was therefore illegal. A clip of their verbal interaction can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVyt4e5SNeM

Schlossberg had begun recording the interaction after he twice mentioned to the officer his intent to do so. On the third time, Solesbee noted that was already filming and moved in to seize the camera under a state law that makes recording people’s conversations secretly illegal. It was under this logic that Police Chief Pete Kerns defended his man, saying he neither violated Schlossberg’s rights and “was objectively reasonable” with the amount of force he used to subdue Schlossberg.

However, last Monday the jury unanimously ruled against the officer and awarded a total of $5,583 in damages to Schlossberg.

It was found by the jury that setting up a table at the edge of a sidewalk and handing out brochures about how an Umpqua chairman, Roseburg Forest Products President Allyn Ford, sprayed toxic herbicides that drifted onto private properties from industrial forestland his company owns, is in fact not a crime. It was also found that the “forest advocate” had his rights violated via the use of excessive force.

Despite not obtaining a clean sweep by also winning unanimity on the battery charge, Schlossberg’s attorney Lauren Regan says she is “very pleased” with the decision of the court. “I hope it draws a line as far as what is and is not legal, as far as the rights of videographers and cop watchers to film [police] in the public domain.”

In addition to the $1,500 in “noneconomic damages,” Schlossberg was also awarded $4,083 to cover the medical expenses he suffered due to the incident. “He intended to and did cause offensive contact,” Regan said.

Despite maintaining that he doesn’t think his officer “did anything wrong,” the Register Guard reports that Chief Pete Kerns has now added to his statement that “officers today are not encouraged to arrest someone under similar circumstances.” He sites the numerous court decisions unrelated to this case that have reaffirmed private citizens’ rights to videotape police while in public as the reason for his sudden change of heart.

A pdf documenting the Judge’s initial verdict on Solesbee’s violation of Schlossberg’s rights by viewing the video on his camera can be found below.

Initial Ruling