The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals courthouse in Atlanta. (BOB ANDRES/bandres@ajc.com)

Food Not Bombs activist’s suit against Atlanta officer heads to trial

A lawsuit filed by a woman against an Atlanta police officer who arrested her while she was feeding the homeless can go to trial, the federal appeals court has ruled.

On Friday, a unanimous three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said no reasonable police officer would have had probable cause to arrest someone under similar circumstances. The court rejected an attempt by APD Officer Stephenson Camille to dismiss Caroline Croland’s civil rights lawsuit against him.

On June 1, 2014, Croland, a member of Food Not Bombs, was feeding the homeless at Woodruff Park as the group does most Sundays. She was also a member of Cop Watch of East Atlanta, a watchdog group that films police officers in public.

That day, Camille, who was on duty, was at the park as part of his routine foot patrol. He “hovered” around the Food Not Bombs table for about an hour-and-a-half while volunteers filmed Camille using their cellphones, the lawsuit said.

The court said it relied upon one of those video recordings to arrive at its decision. The video showed that a volunteer — not Croland — approached Camille and asked him to leave the park because he wasn’t wanted there.

When Camille responded that he had a right to remain in the park, the volunteer, in a mocking and insulting manner, continued to ask him to leave. For the most part, Camille ignored the remarks and responded by giving his name and badge number.

Camille wandered away from the Food Not Bombs table but returned. According to the court document, at this point, Croland could be heard saying she was “so angry, oh my god, so angry,” referring to Camille’s presence. Then, in a loud voice, she said, “It’s like we can’t like share a … meal with people every Sunday without state harassment!”

When Camille turned his back and started to walk away, Croland yelled at him, asking, “Why?! Why?! Why?! Why?! Why?!” the ruling said. She then demanded, “Answer me!”

After turning to face Croland, Camille then walked up to her and told her she was under arrest for disorderly conduct. She was later charged with violating a city code that makes it unlawful “to cause, provoke or engage in a fight or riotous conduct,” the ruling said.

In its ruling, the 11th Circuit said there was no justification for that to have happened.

“On this record, no objective officer under the same circumstances and possessing Officer Camille’s knowledge could have believed reasonably that probable existed to arrest (Croland),” the court said.

Croland yelled at Camille in front of a group of people, and she made no gestures with her hands and took no steps toward him, the ruling said. “Yelling about police harassment in front of a crowd — by itself — was not enough to give rise to probable cause or arguable probable cause to arrest.”

On Sunday, APD spokesman Carlos Campos said the department does not comment on pending litigation.

Gerry Weber, one of Croland’s lawyers, applauded the ruling.

“What this case is about is that it’s important for officers to have a thick skin,” he said. “We hold them to a high standard for that, and they can’t make an arrest simply because the citizen criticizes the police.”

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