A former deputy public defender who sued San Francisco claiming she was wrongfully arrested for attempting to stop a police officer from photographing her client at the Hall of Justice has lost her case in federal court.

A former deputy public defender who sued San Francisco claiming she was wrongfully arrested for attempting to stop a police officer from photographing her client at the Hall of Justice has lost her case in federal court.

Court rules against public defender who sued SF alleging wrongful arrest

A former deputy public defender who sued San Francisco claiming she was wrongfully arrested for attempting to stop a police officer from photographing her client at the Hall of Justice has lost her case in federal court.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled against former Deputy Public Defender Jami Tillotson on June 29, affirming the decision of a federal judge who in January 2017 threw out her case against two San Francisco officers.

Sgt. Brian Stansbury and Ofc. Brian Kneuker arrested Tillotson in January 2015 after she stepped between Stansbury and her client outside a courtroom. Stansbury believed her client and another man had committed a series of burglaries in The City and sought to photograph them for evidence.

Cellphone videos that captured the arrest quickly went viral and prompted concerns about what critics said was police arresting a public defender for simply doing her job. But the three-judge panel sided with the officers last month.

“Although she was apparently acting in good faith, on this record there can be no serious question that the police were lawfully conducting a criminal investigation, and had probable cause to conclude that [Tillotson] interfered with it,” reads the opinion from Judges Mary M. Schroeder, Ronald M. Gould and Albert Diaz.

VIDEO OF TILLOTSON ARREST

The opinion came after her attorney, DeWitt Lacy from the law offices of John Burris, argued before the panel June 12 that Tillotson was unlawfully arrested because she spoke out against the officers.

“The issue here really is whether or not law enforcement should be entitled to base an arrest or probable cause on someone exercising their First Amendment rights, whether or not retaliation can be the basis for an arrest,” Lacy said. “We argue that it cannot.”

But the judges found that the arrest was lawful because Tillotson had “refused to step aside, thus giving the officers probable cause to conclude that she was interfering with their lawful photographic investigation.”

“The officers could also reasonably conclude that Plaintiff’s statements to them were intended to further her interference,” the opinion reads. “There is thus no merit to her claim that she was arrested on the basis of speech alone.”

The opinion reflected the argument of Deputy City Attorney Margaret Baumgartner, who on June 12 told the panel that, “the reasons for this particular arrest was her actions and not her speech.”

“There is no law here that suggests that Sgt. Stansbury had no right to detain these two men and obtain their photograph,” Baumgartner said.

Among the allegations Tillotson made were excessive force and intentional infliction of emotional distress as a result of the arrest.

Tillotson and Lacy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu made the initial decision against Tillotson on Jan. 17, 2017.

Court documents show that Stansbury was at the Hall of Justice on the day of the arrest to testify in an unrelated case when another officer recognized Tillotson’s client and another man from a crime bulletin that Stansbury had sent out.

Stansbury left his courtroom to see the men and recognized them as possible suspects in the commercial burglary he was investigating from their clothing, including a dark jacket with a horizontal stripe that one of the men was wearing.

Stansbury began to question the men when several public defender’s intervened and called for Tillotson, who then stood between Stansbury and her client.

“I just want to take some pictures, okay, then he will be free to go,” he told Tillotson.

“I’m pretty sure that we’re okay here,” Tillotson told Stansbury. “We don’t need any pictures taken, thank you.”

When Stansbury told her he would arrest her for resisting arrest if she did not step aside, Tillotson said, “Please do.”

Tillotson was detained but not charged. Then police Chief Greg Suhr apologized to her for any emotional distress she experienced as a result of the arrest while standing by his officers’ actions.

That December, the Department of Police Accountability, then called the Office of Citizen Complaints, sustained a complaint of unwarranted action that Tillotson filed against the officers for making an arrest without cause.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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