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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Crime/Public Safety

Woman arrested while filming Spokane police settles lawsuit with city and county for $57,500

Oct. 19, 2022 Updated Wed., Oct. 19, 2022 at 3:04 p.m.

The city of Spokane and the county have settled a lawsuit brought by a woman who claims her First Amendment rights were violated when she was arrested while filming a police action in downtown Spokane.  (JESSE TINSLEY)
The city of Spokane and the county have settled a lawsuit brought by a woman who claims her First Amendment rights were violated when she was arrested while filming a police action in downtown Spokane. (JESSE TINSLEY)

Walking home from watching a friend’s DJ set in the summer of 2021, Erika Prins Simonds noticed a large number of Spokane Police officers interviewing people in a parking lot across from a bar on Sprague Avenue.

The people being interviewed were mostly people of color, and after a bystander filmed the police killing of George Floyd in 2020, causing international uproar, Simonds said she thought, “Better safe than sorry.” So she walked over to the parking lot, pulled out her phone and started recording.

Within a minute, police officers approached her and asked her to leave.

“They were not acknowledging that the issue that they had was that I was filming,” Simonds said. “But there were other people in the parking lot that they were not approaching.”

Not long after, she was arrested for trespassing on the private parking lot and taken to the Spokane County Jail, where she said detention officers handled her roughly and aggravated an old shoulder injury.

Shocked by the experience, Simonds, a 38-year-old mother of two, hired an attorney and sued the city and county for violating her First Amendment rights, false imprisonment and excessive use of force. Both the city and county decided to settle this spring for a combined $57,500.

Police declined to comment on the specifics of Simonds’ arrest and lawsuit, but department spokesman Cpl. Nick Briggs noted that filming police is a constitutionally protected right. There are few professions where the work may be captured on video by anyone and scrutinized as much as law enforcement. Most people exercise that right to film in a “peaceful and nonintrusive” way, Briggs said, but filming doesn’t give people the right to interfere with an investigation or break other laws, like trespassing.

Trespassing is being in a place without a legal right or privilege, Briggs said. The person has to reasonably know they’re not supposed to be there through signage, being told to leave or a combination. If someone is told to leave and given the opportunity to do so but they don’t, they’re subject to arrest, Briggs said. In locations downtown where people gather, such as a parking lot, other crimes like fights or vandalism are often committed.

In Simonds’ case, the other people in the parking lot, from what Briggs saw from video and body camera footage, were either leaving the area, being interviewed by police or waiting for friends being interviewed.

“There was really only one person, that I saw, who was uninvolved … wasn’t being interviewed by police, wasn’t associated by anybody being interviewed by police,” Briggs said. “So, again, didn’t really have that lawful standing.”

Officers can choose to ticket someone for trespassing or arrest them, Briggs said. Sometimes officers take people into custody on trespassing charges in order to prevent continuing criminal conduct, he said.

Most interactions with officers start conversationally, he said, but officers require compliance during an arrest and have to become more direct if people aren’t following commands.

“You see that communication change, as our initial attempts aren’t always effective,” Briggs said.

Briggs disagreed with Simonds’ insistence that she was arrested because she was being filmed.

“The assertion that police don’t like to be filmed or anything like that, again, quite frankly, isn’t really logical when we’re wearing cameras on our chests that are rolling constantly when we’re on a scene,” Briggs said.

A benefit of being filmed constantly, Briggs said, is having the ability to review officer action and strive for a better performance. Briggs noted that prosecutors have different standards when pursuing cases than officers do when making arrests. A civil lawsuit also considers different elements, compared to officers making an arrest.

Bystanders filming police have garnered significant attention in recent years – especially in the aftermath of the Floyd killing, where a teenager filmed the incident, exposing inconsistencies in the version of events presented by police. The case resulted in an officer convicted of murder.

Such events prompted Simonds to record what was happening outside the bar that night. Shortly after she began recording, an officer approached her in a friendly manner and asked if he could help her, she said. Simonds said she declined his offer and continued to film while standing in the private parking lot.

Officers then asked her to leave the parking lot or film from the public sidewalk, she said. Simonds said she was confident in her First Amendment right to film officers in public and didn’t want to move because then her phone couldn’t capture what the police were saying.

Officers then began discussing what they could arrest Simonds for, she said and body camera footage shows.

Officers confirmed they had an agreement with parking lot owner Diamond Parking to trespass loiterers. Then they arrested Simonds.

It was the first time Simonds had ever been arrested, and she claimed she was “manhandled” when a female officer patted her down.

The city did not admit wrongdoing. It paid Simonds $25,000 to settle her claim.

Spokane Police bodycam video / The Spokesman-Review

Once at the jail, Simonds was asked a series of questions during booking. She kept asking if she was required to give the information, she said, adding that it annoyed the jailers.

“I’m trying to basically, like, give the information I have to give, but not give more information,” she said.

At one point, officers brought up Simonds’ foster child. “It felt like a threat,” she said.

The entire process was confusing, Simonds said, with jail staff acting like Simonds should know what was going on despite it being her first time at the jail.

Jail staff are trained on the job to book people, said Lt. Don Hooper, interim director of detention services.

“There’s not a check list or an orientation, as of such, but basically you’re explaining the process every step because it is unfamiliar to a lot of people,” Hooper said of jail staff training.

After sitting in jail for a few hours, Simonds said she was brought out to be released. Corrections officers showed her a bag with her property in it and then handed her a list of what should be in the bag.

Simonds noticed items were missing from the list that she could see in the bag. She told the officers she didn’t want to sign an incorrect list, which they said was fine.

“They took my refusal to sign that as me also refusing to sign my release forms,” Simonds said.

A few corrections officers grabbed her, including one who pulled her arm back, Simonds alleged in her lawsuit. Simonds had an old shoulder injury that limited her range of motion, which caused her to jerk when officers yanked her arm, she said.

Officers interpreted her actions as resisting and became really rough, she alleged, even though she said she tried to explain that her shoulder was injured. Officers pushed her to the cell floor, she said, leaving her with fingerprint bruises on her arm and along her spine, she said.

“It was all very sudden,” Simonds said. “They said I didn’t have to sign the form and I said, no, thank you and then it just became like I’m being jumped by these guards. It’s so intense.”

It’s common for people to refuse to sign their property form, Hooper said. In Simonds’ case, officers described the back and forth differently.

“I don’t think she was cooperating very well with our officers,” Hooper said.

All uses of force in the jail are reviewed in an internal investigation, Hooper said.

A supervisor also immediately follows up with the inmate to get their statement, then there is medical follow-up, Hooper said. Simonds said a supervisor did come ask her about what happened.

The officer’s use of force was determined to be “within policy” in Simonds’ case, Hooper said.

The county did not admit to any liability when it settled with Simonds for $32,500.

The aftermath

After she was released from jail, Simonds said she struggled. The trespassing charge against her was quickly dismissed by a municipal court judge due to a lack of evidence.

Eventually, she mentioned the ordeal to her friend Andrew Biviano, a local attorney.

The case immediately piqued his interest. Biviano said he did some research and the law was clear: citizens have the right to record police, as long as they’re not obstructing the officers.

“It was clear that they were figuring out something they could arrest her for because they wanted her to leave,” Biviano said. “But there was nothing that she was doing that was obstructing anything.”

Simonds said she wanted to pursue legal action against the city and county, partly because many people in the criminal justice system aren’t educated on their rights and don’t have the ability to fight back.

Simonds said she has lost trust in police and used some of her settlement money to display her resentment with a tattoo across her wrist that reads “ACAB,” an acronym frequently used by anti-police protestors that means, “All cops are bastards.”

“What it means is that the whole system is rotten,” Simonds said. “Which is like what I came away with, because it was like the moment I made contact … like, none of that is how it’s supposed to go.”

Biviano says that the incident with Simonds — a foster mom of two young children, with no criminal record — shows something like this can happen to anyone.

“I want this to be a learning opportunity for everybody,” Biviano said. “That the future officers who see someone recording can remember that this is protected by the First Amendment, and citizens know that too.”

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