BP protester says police retaliating over lawsuit

October 5, 2012 

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - A woman suing a south Mississippi city for her arrest while protesting the BP oil spill has filed a new complaint that claims she was arrested again for no reason in retaliation for the lawsuit.

Sandra Howard sued the city of Long Beach and officers Shawn Johnson and Melissa Peterson on Nov. 18, 2011. She accused the officers of violating her constitutional rights by arresting her on June 12, 2010, as she protested on a public sidewalk near a service station that sells BP gasoline.

She spent one night in jail and the case was eventually remanded to files for a lack of evidence, the lawsuit said. That means it won't be prosecuted but could be later if more evidence is found.

The police report from the arrest said customers using the gas pumps complained that Howard was screaming and using profanity. Howard was not cooperative when the officers asked her to move across the street, the report said.

The ACLU of Mississippi filed an amended complaint Friday on Howard's behalf in U.S. District Court in Gulfport. The latest complaint names two more police officers - Brad Gross and Ken Lassabe - as defendants and accuses them of arresting Howard again as retaliation for the original lawsuit.

Josh Danos, an attorney for the city and the police officers, said the allegations in the second complaint "have no more merit than the ones contained in her original complaint."

He said he couldn't comment further on the pending litigation.

The police reports from the second arrest said Howard was pulled over July 25 for not having a license plate and an officer asked her to get out of the car for investigation of DUI because he allegedly smelled marijuana. The report said Howard's husband had documents to show the car had been recently purchased so she was not cited for not having a tag, but she was arrested for failing to comply with the officer's instructions. An officer later determined that Howard did not appear to be impaired and she was not charged with DUI, the report said.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages but also asks for a finding that Howard's rights were violated and to have her records cleared of the arrests.

The lawsuit says Howard had never protested anything before the oil spill but decided she wanted to stand up for the Gulf Coast in the weeks after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20, 2010. The explosion caused an oil spill that leaked some 206 million gallons of oil from a BP well a mile beneath the sea, according to government estimates.

Howard picked a service station near the beach in her hometown because she "believes that the symbolism of protesting in front of the BP station, in full view of the white sands of the Gulf Coast, sends a very powerful message," the lawsuit said. Howard claims she had a permit to protest and was doing so on the public sidewalk when the officers arrived within five minutes and arrested her without cause. She was not convicted of a crime.

The amended complaint said Howard went back to the same store exactly two years later for another solitary protest - on June 12 of this year - and one of the arresting officers showed up and appeared to video her, in what the lawsuit calls "retaliatory harassment."

Howard also claims she was pulled over and arrested for no reason on July 25 when she was charged with "failure to obey an officer after they unlawfully ordered her to get out of her car," the lawsuit said.

Bear Atwood, legal director for the ACLU of Mississippi, said citizens should be able protest like the constitution allows without fear of arrest or retaliation.

"She feels that she's being retaliated against by local law enforcement for filing her original complaint," Atwood said.

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