A man arrested in 2017 after refusing to identify himself to local law enforcement agents is suing an Itawamba County justice court judge, deputy and the sheriff for alleged rights violations.
Jonathan Lee Pierson filed a federal lawsuit with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi in late April against Itawamba County Sheriff Chris Dickinson, deputy Larry Johnson, Itawamba County Justice Court Judge John Bishop and other unnamed individuals. According to the complaint, Pierson accuses those named of violating his First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
The First Amendment protects the right to free speech; the Fourth Amendment gives the right to be “secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” without probable cause; the Fourteenth Amendment protects the rights of U.S. citizens.
Pierson is seeking $500,000 in damages, or “such other reasonable amount as the Court deems,” plus attorney fees and declamatory judgments that those named as defendants violated the law and his civil rights during his arrest. Judge Glen H. Davidson is set to preside over the case.
Pierson is represented by Oxford-based attorney Danny Lampley.
Dickinson and Bishop are being sued in their official capacities. Johnson and the unnamed defendants are being sued as individuals.
During their regular meeting, last week, the Itawamba County Board of Supervisors voted to turn over the lawsuit to the county’s insurance company for representation.
Pierson was arrested on Oct. 26, 2017, on a charge of disorderly conduct after he refused to identify himself to local deputies, Johnson among them. Pierson was shooting a video at the time of his arrest. Portions of the footage were subsequently uploaded to Youtube following his arrest, which drew national attention from groups of civil rights activists.
Officials with the Itawamba County Sheriff’s Department claim Pierson and another man, Stephen Kilbourne, were filming and taking pictures in several places throughout downtown Fulton on the day of his arrest, including the county courthouse, Playgarden Park, post office and outside the jail. The department reportedly received several complaints regarding the duo, leading to the initial confrontation.
Law enforcement officials said Pierson was charged with disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor, after repeatedly refusing to provide identification upon request. He was later transported to Lee County on an outstanding warrant.
According to Mississippi law, disorderly conduct constitutes a “failure to comply with requests or commands of law enforcement officers.”
Although with Pierson at the time of his arrest, Kilbourne was not arrested.
The suit details a number of alleged civil rights violations, including the arrest itself.
“Neither Mr. Pierson nor his colleague engaged in any behavior that was disruptive, combative, loud, disturbing, disorderly, or unpeaceful, nor any that would give rise to any articulable suspicion that they were engaged in, or about to engage in, any crime such as that their presence could be lawfully questioned or that they should be stopped for questioning, much less arrested,” the filing states.
The suit also alleges the digital contents of Pierson’s phone were illegally searched during his arrest. Pierson claims one or more personal files on his phone had been deleted, although not the video that captured his arrest.
In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police aren’t permitted to search the digital contents of a phone, tablet, camera, or similar electronic device without a warrant. This ruling extends to situations in which a person is arrested and his or her phone, etc. is seized since, according to the court, digital contents don’t pose an immediate physical threat to law enforcement.
The unnamed defendants in the suit include “the other deputies and personnel of the sheriff’s department who were immediately present or assisting in the arrest of the plaintiff and who participated or were otherwise involved in the attempt to delete the video file of the occurrence which had been recorded by the plaintiff on his cell phone.”
The claim also alleges that the charge of Disorderly Conduct was changed to Disturbing the Public Peace without Pierson’s input or consent, a violation of due process. It also states Judge Bishop denied Pierson’s request to record his trial.
According to the State of Mississippi Judiciary website, electronic recording during justice court proceedings is up to the discretion of the judge.