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White Collar & Criminal Law

Minnesota Cops Seek Immunity in Hurt Journalist’s Protest Suit

Sept. 15, 2020, 5:17 PM

Minnesota law enforcement officials sought to shake off a proposed civil rights class action brought by journalists injured while reporting on Black Lives Matter protests in Minneapolis, arguing qualified immunity protects them from any liability for claims of excessive force.

Freelance journalist Jared Goyette claims a police officer shot him in the face May 27 with less-lethal ballistic ammunition while trying to make contact with an injured protester. In a separate case, photographer Linda Tirado alleges she lost an eye May 29 to foam bullets shot by police officers at the crowd of protesters.

Minneapolis residents spilled into the streets after video emerged of 46-year-old George Floyd dying May 25 while being arrested for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill. The protests soon went nationwide and turned violent.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has identified hundreds of incidences of aggression towards journalists covering the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, including at least 96 journalists nationwide who have been arrested by police while on the job.

But high-ranking officials at Minnesota’s Department of Public Safety and its State Patrol argue they should be dropped from Goyette’s lawsuit seeking damages because of the doctrine of qualified immunity. They filed a motion to dismiss Monday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, where the case is pending before Judge Wilhelmina M. Wright.

Once the state or a state official claims qualified immunity from civil liability for alleged civil rights violations, a plaintiff is then required to show that an individual acting under the color of law violated their “clearly established” constitutional rights.

Goyette flagged two incidents over the past five years of unnamed officers arresting journalists at protests, according to the brief. But that couldn’t have put the state defendants on notice that “all troopers may violate the constitutional rights of the media” by arresting them, such that a failure to provide additional training amounts to deliberate indifference, the state defendants argued.

The City of Minneapolis and its Chief of Police filed an answer in lieu of a motion to dismiss, asserting qualified immunity as an affirmative defense.

The Minneapolis defendants also asserted the plaintiff journalists’ contributory negligence, assumption of the risk of injury, and failure to mitigate damages as affirmative defenses.

The Minnesota Attorney General’s Office represents the state defendants. City attorneys represent the Minneapolis defendants.

The American Civil Liberties Union, Fredrikson & Byron PA, and Apollo Law LLC represent Goyette and the proposed class.

The case is Goyette v. City of Minneapolis, D. Minn., No. 20-cv-01302, motions to dismiss 9/14/20.

To contact the reporter on this story: Porter Wells in Washington at pwells@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com

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