A Black pastor in Alabama who was arrested and charged with obstructing a government operation while watering an out-of-town neighbor’s plants has filed a civil rights lawsuit against the officers.
Michael Jerome Jennings was arrested on May 22 as he watered the plants outside his neighbor’s home. According to the lawsuit, Jennings’ neighbors were away, and they had asked him to water his plants while they were gone.
Jennings’ lawyer, Harry Daniels, filed a lawsuit on Friday alleging that Jennings, a longtime pastor at Vision of Abundant Life Church in Sylacauga, Alabama, was wrongfully arrested and charged. In addition to federal civil rights claims, Jennings is also bringing a state law claim of false arrest against all the defendants, the lawsuit says.
Apparently a neighbor, identified in the complaint only as Amanda, had called 911 and complained that an SUV parked on the neighbor’s property wasn’t supposed to be there, and neither was Jennings.
In their interaction with Jennings, Childersburg Police Officers Christopher Smith, Justin Gable, and Jeremy Brooks demanded to see Jennings’ ID. According to Jennings, state law only allows police officers to demand to see someone’s identification if the officer “reasonably suspects” that person is about to or has committed a felony “or other public offense,” and they are “in a public place” at the time.
The lawsuit notes that Jennings did tell the police who he was.
“I’m supposed to be here,” he told Smith, who was the first to approach Jennings. “I’m Pastor Jennings. I live across the street.”
“I’m looking out for their house while they’re gone, watering their flowers,” he also said.
Gable then approached Jennings, who “attempted to walk away and continue his good deed of watering his neighbor’s flowers,” the complaint says. At that point, Jennings was placed in handcuffs, and Smith took his cellphone away.
Brooks was the third to arrive on the scene, and according to the complaint, the situation continued to escalate:
Defendant Brooks told Pastor Jennings that they have a right to identify him, and he needed to listen to them and shut his mouth. Pastor Jennings told Defendant Brooks they need to listen, and he needs to shut his mouth and not to talk to him like he is a child. Immediately, after Pastor Jennings express his discontent of how Defendant Brooks was speaking to him, Defendants Smith decided to arrest Pastor Jennings. Defendant Brooks concurred with Defendant Smith and told Pastor Jennings he was going to jail. 17. Defendant Gable escorted Pastor Jennings to his patrol vehicle. Notably, Defendants Brooks and Smith acknowledged that Pastor Jennings was on private property as they were walking to run a license plate check on the gold SUV that was in the yard.
Jennings, while handcuffed, is ultimately taken to the back of a police vehicle. He was arrested and charged with obstruction of government operation.
According to the lawsuit, the police officers who arrested Jennings had no basis to do so.
“No reasonable officer in the individuals Defendants’ position could have believed there was arguable probable cause that Pastor Jennings committed the offense obstruction of government or any other criminal act prior to his arrest,” the complaint says. “Additionally, Pastor Jennings was arrested in retaliation after engaging in constitutionally protected speech and conduct. The individual Defendants’ arrest of Pastor Jennings was malicious, willful or with a reckless or wanton disregard of Pastor Jennings’ constitutional rights.”
The charges were later dismissed with prejudice, the lawsuit notes.
Amanda, who is white, is seen on body-worn camera footage approaching the officers. She acknowledges that she is the one who called the police and that at the time, she didn’t recognize Jennings.
“He lives right there, and he would be watering their flowers,” she tells police, according to a report by ABC News. “This is probably my fault.”
The lawsuit says that Amanda refused to provide her last name and identification to the Childersburg police on the scene.
Jennings’ wife also corroborated the pastor’s identity to police, but police refused to let him go.
“Despite that fact Pastor Jennings identified himself to Defendants Smith under no legal obligation to do so; Despite that fact Amanda validated who Pastor Jennings was and that he probably had permission to be on the private property; Despite that fact Pastor Jennings’ wife produced his identification to the individual Defendants; The individual Defendants refused to release Pastor Jennings from their custody and took him to the Childersburg City Jail and then he was booked and transported to the Talladega County Jail,” the complaint says.
The charges were dismissed with prejudice on Jan. 1, the complaint also says.
According to the lawsuit, Jennings “suffered lost future earnings and impaired earnings capacities from the not yet fully ascertained sequelae of his injuries.”
He says that he continues to suffer from having been wrongfully arrested.
“The Defendants’ action caused the Plaintiff to suffer from emotional distress, with significant PTSD type symptoms, including sadness, anxiety, stress, anger, depression, frustration, sleeplessness, nightmares and flashbacks from his unlawful arrest,” the complaint says.
Jennings’ lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages, as well as attorneys’ fees.
A person who answered the phone at the Childersburg Police Department declined to comment and referred Law&Crime to the city attorney, Reagan Rumsey, who did not immediately respond to Law&Crime’s request for comment.
Read the complaint, provided to Law&Crime by Daniels, below.
[Image via YouTube screengrab/ABC News.]
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