JACKSON, MS (WLOX) - JACKSON, MS (WLOX) - The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi has filed a lawsuit against the city of Jackson and three police officers. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of ACLU employee Brent Cox, alleges the officers violated Cox's constitutional rights when they arrested him after Cox questioned the officers and asked for their badge numbers.
The incident at the heart of the lawsuit happened September 14, 2007 when Cox came upon a police officer questioning a man in a grocery store parking lot. The lawsuit said the man was not under arrest when Cox stopped to watch the officer talking with him.
The lawsuit says Cox wanted "to observe the police in order to avail himself of the right to collect information regarding government action, as he is permitted to do under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution."
When a Jackson police officer question why Cox was there, the lawsuit says, that officer told him "he did not have a right to observe and to 'go on.'"
The lawsuit details the back and forth between Cox and the police including the officers refusal give Cox their names and badge numbers. The suit says one officer "went so far as to cover her badge, preventing the Plaintiff from reading the number."
The ACLU says Cox was arrested even though he complied with police instructions, while continuing to ask for the officers badge numbers and asked to talk to a police supervisor.
"We do not have secret police in the United States," said Nsombi Lambright, Executive Director of the ACLU of Mississippi. "Observing police in public are fundamental rights, protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Individuals must know that they can exercise this right without fear of arrest."
The ACLU of Mississippi says police apparently did not know Cox was an ACLU employee at the time of his arrest. He serves as the organization's Public Education Coordinator, a position that includes teaching people across Mississippi about their right to participate in government and hold government accountable to the people. This includes the right to observe and document police activity.
"People have a fundamental right to observe police in public, said Cox. "Police are more likely follow the law and to act according to training and policy if they know people care enough to watch them in public. People have greater trust of police officers if they know they won't be harassed or arrested for watching them."
"Police must respect the right to observe police in public, including the right to take notes, video or just watch," said Bear Atwood, ACLU of Mississippi's Acting Legal Director. "If police arrest people for constitutionally protected behavior, of course the ACLU is going to intervene. Our mission is to defend the Constitutional rights of everyone. We will not stand by and let fundamental First Amendment rights be trampled."
The lawsuit seeks to recover damages specifically for the First Amendment right to observe under the First Amendment, for unreasonable detention and seizure under the Fourth Amendment, violation of due process of law and for arbitrary governmental action under the Fourteenth Amendment, and for violation of the public policy of the State of Mississippi.
"Educating the public about their rights as they interact with law enforcement is a key strategy for the ACLU-MS's Criminal Justice Reform Campaign. It is our hope that this lawsuit makes citizens and law enforcement aware that police are not above the law," added Lambright.
Click HERE to read the whole lawsuit.