Journalist: I was targeted for arrest as I covered protest
ASBURY PARK — A reporter who was arrested while covering a protest in June has filed a lawsuit, claiming the arrest violated his constitutional rights.
Gustavo Martínez was live-streaming the chaotic events on the night of June 1 after an 8 p.m. curfew, which the city expressly said did not apply to essential workers, including members of the media. Hours earlier, thousands had participated in a demonstration prompted by the death of unarmed black man George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. Several hundred lingered following the curfew, police said.
Police eventually arrested Martínez and charged him with failure to obey an order to disperse. The charge was dropped the next day. State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal had immediately called for an investigation into the arrest — Because in America, we don't lock up reporters for doing their job," Grewal said at the time — but the Monmouth County Prosecutor's office found no fault with the officers.
"Rather, Martinez was arrested because police officers believed him to be a protester who had disobeyed numerous orders to disperse more than two hours after the expiration of the curfew. The officers’ beliefs, under the circumstances, were reasonable," a report by the office says.
That's despite Martinez having earlier spoken to several police, and having worn press credentials around his neck, the report acknowledges. The report said it might not have been clear to officers given his attire and the time of night who he was.
In the lawsuit Martinez claims he was targeted by police because he was covering an event about violence by police against civilians.
"I’m filing this lawsuit because a press badge should not be a bullseye. On June 1, while I was live-streaming police misconduct in Asbury Park for the Asbury Park Press, police targeted me, yelled 'f**k him, he’s the problem!’ and then officers tackled me, slapped my phone out of my hand and took me to jail," Martinez said in a statement.
Martinez names the city of Asbury Park, Monmouth County, the borough of Belmar, Lieutenant Amir Bercovicz, and John Doe law enforcement officers in the lawsuit.
"Mr. Martínez now brings this action to prevent law enforcement from continuing to infringe upon the constitutional rights of reporters and others seeking to record and document political protests. He also seeks to redress the harm unlawfully inflicted on him when law enforcement tackled, arrested, detained and jailed him, preventing him from exercising his First Amendment rights that night," the lawsuit, which seeks unspecified punitive and compensatory damages, statees.
The Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office concluded that Martinez was not targeted for arrest because he is a journalist, but said it was appropriate to drop the charges once his identity as one became clear.
Martinez in the lawsuit disputes the findings of the investigation, and said he told police on at least five occasions he is a reporter. He called the report an attempt to "circle the wagons ahead of this lawsuit."
The report said Martinez was not wearing a not wearing any reflective vest or jacket with the word "PRESS," as some other journalists had. Bodycam footage shows him wearing a dark sweatshirt and dark jeans, goggles, a mask, a black helmet and a gray backpack. It also said that his press pass was not clearly visible and was blackened in the back.
Martinez in the lawsuit said he was wearing a pass that was issued by the state and it's appearance or visibility was not his fault.
The lawsuit also says that the prosecutor's office would not release the names of the officers involved or release the evidence in the investigation.
"Journalists like Gustavo Martinez are preserving an extraordinary moment in American history by reporting on the Black Lives Matter protests. Duty bound, these brave reporters continue to deliver the news despite police attacks attempting to silence them. Gibson Dunn is proud to represent Mr. Martínez in this pursuit of justice," Shireen Barday, a partner with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, said in a statement. The firm said it is representing Martinzez pro bono.
After the release of the prosecutor's office report Grewal announced the creation of a working group to "address critical issues of safety, freedom of the press, and free speech during protests."
Grewal, echoing some of the conclusions of the Monmouth investigation — which his office reviewed and supported — said "public demonstrations can quickly become chaotic, presenting challenges for law enforcement officers attempting to maintain order with limited or partial information."
"By bringing together representatives of law enforcement and the media, we hope to develop clear guidelines that will help both reporters and officers during such situations going forward."
According to the lawsuit, Martinez was invited to join the group.
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