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Ohio ACLU Files Civil Rights Lawsuit Over Columbus Man Arrested For Filming Police

SWAT officer

The ACLU of Ohio has filed a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of a Columbus resident who was arrested for filming a Columbus Police SWAT team that was serving a search warrant in his neighborhood.

Nick Pettit was arrested April 24, 2019 after recording police slapping a compliant teenager’s face "without provocation" at the home across the street. "Mr. Pettit told the police to stop it, and said that he had them on camera," the complaint says.

Police then told Pettit, who was filming from his own porch, to stop and go inside. Pettit did not, and told officers he was on his private property. Two officers and a commanding sergeant then approached Pettit, who was still filming. “Then they slammed him down, threatened him, took his phone, roughed him up, and arrested him,” the complaint continues.

"Mr. Pettit’s right to film police is a protected First Amendment right. His right to criticize or call out the police is also a protected First Amendment right,” says Elizabeth Bonham, staff attorney for the ACLU of Ohio.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio. It lists Sergeants James Morrow and Joseph Podolski, and officers Kenneth Dale and Glenn Thivener, as defendants.

The lawsuit says Pettit did not fight back, even as officers demanded he hand over the phone used to record the encounter. It says Pettit's shoulder and face were injured when officers slammed him to the ground.

Pettit’s sister-in-law, who was also standing on the porch, called emergency dispatch after police threatened her and shoved her. The complaint says the dispatcher told her she would be charged with "misuse of 911" and transfered her to a non-emergency line, where the call dropped.

According to the ACLU of Ohio, Pettit was jailed for five days before he was charged for "misconduct at an emergency." Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein dropped the charges before trial based on insufficient evidence.

“Any infraction on someone’s most fundamental constitutional rights is a big deal,” Bonham says. “And in this time and space where we’re concerned about police misconduct, we’re concerned about abuses in the criminal justice system.”

The lawsuit seeks damages for police retaliation against Pettit for exercising his First Amendment right to record and speak with police, and says use of excessive force and seizure of his phone violated Pettit's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. It adds that Pettit lost a job opportunity because of his arrest.

“The state should be encouraging people to use First Amendment rights to express themselves to the state and to peacefully be holding folks accountable for what’s happening in their own neighborhoods,” Bonham says.

The Columbus Division of Police does not comment on pending litigation.

Adora Namigadde was a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU News in February 2017. A Michigan native, she graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in French.