PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – An Oregon Public Broadcasting editor is suing the city of Medford, Jackson County and several members of the Medford Police Department, claiming they violated her First and Fourth Amendment rights by arresting her for reporting on a sweep of a homeless camp in Medford on Sept. 22, 2020.
April Ehrlich was working as a reporter for Jefferson Public Radio at the time of the incident. In the lawsuit, filed Sept. 20, 2022, Ehrlich claims police officers violated her civil rights by interfering with her work as a journalist and by unlawfully searching her belongings.
On Sept. 22, 2020, Ehrlich was holding her audio recording equipment and had her press badge displayed while walking around Hawthorne Park in Medford and reporting on the camp clearance, according to the lawsuit.
Video from the Medford Police Department showed when officers approached her and asked her to leave, Ehrlich identified herself as a reporter and pointed out that she was in a public park. An officer then told her she was committing the crime of trespass and said the park was closed and she needed to leave.
When Ehrlich shook her head no in the video, the officer told her she was under arrest.
“I am a reporter! I am a reporter! I’m just doing my job. I’m here to report on this. Let go of me! Let go of me! Let go. This is ridiculous,” Ehrlich is heard saying in the Medford Police body cam video of the incident.
While placing her in handcuffs officers say “please don’t resist.”
Ehrlich was arrested and charged with trespass, resisting arrest, and interfering with an officer. The City of Medford later dismissed the charge of interfering with an officer. The Medford Municipal Court later dismissed the trespassing charge and after that, the city of Medford dismissed the final charge of resisting arrest.
Ehrlich filed the civil rights lawsuit against Medford, the county, and involved officers after the charges were dismissed.
Four days before Ehrich’s arrest, Medford City Manager Brian Sjothun ordered the Medford Police Department to close Hawthorne Park for a cleanup for 48 hours starting at 8 a.m. on Sept. 21, 2020, according to the lawsuit.
The morning of Sept. 22, 2020, Medford Police and Jackson County probation officers announced Hawthorne Park was closed but allowed campers, volunteers and others to stay throughout the morning. According to the lawsuit, authorities said people were allowed in the park to remove possessions or help, but people were not allowed in the park to document what was going on.
There was not an exception made for journalists, according to the suit, which claimed that instead, they were told to go to a designated area. The lawsuit says this area was near a noisy Interstate 5 overpass on a busy street, outside one end of the approximately 20-acre park, preventing them from seeing or hearing all the activities going on within the park.
The lawsuit states Ehrlich did not wait in the designated area and instead entered the park that morning.
The lawsuit says that when officers arrested Ehrlich, two officers each grabbed one of her arms and forced them behind her back. One of the officers then allegedly kicked at her feet.
After she was arrested, the lawsuit accuses two officers of searching Ehrlich’s belongings and confiscating her reporting equipment.
Ehrlich accuses the city of Medford of violating her First Amendment right to freedom of the press by creating a policy that prevented her from observing and reporting on the events in Hawthorne Park.
“The ‘media staging area’ did not permit journalists to observe and document government activity in Hawthorne Park,” the lawsuit states.
She also accuses the city and its police department of failing to train, supervise and control the officers who implemented a policy that led to her wrongful arrest.
Her Fourth Amendment rights were violated, the lawsuit says, when her belongings were searched and seized.
Ehrlich and her attorneys, from the law firm Kafoury and McDougal, demand a trial by jury and seek noneconomic damages and the cost of covering attorney fees, to be determined by the jury. They ask that the jury also consider punitive damages to deter the city and other defendants from similar conduct in the future.
“Medford police shouldn’t have arrested me for doing my job as a journalist,” Ehrlich wrote in a statement, “and the city of Medford shouldn’t have doubled down on that wrong by pursuing criminal charges for the last two years. I want to ensure no journalist in Oregon or elsewhere has to experience such a stressful and traumatizing experience as the one I had to endure.”
In a statement from the Medford City Attorney’s Office, the city said Ehrlich was one of 10 people arrested in the park that day. The city said it believes the temporary closure of the park to all members of the public on Sept. 22, 2020 was lawful.
“Journalists have no special or unique right of physical access to property that has been closed to the general public,” the city said in a statement. “Other journalists present on the day in question covered the park closure from outside of the closure area. Fonseca was instructed about the closure area and was arrested only after refusing a lawful order to leave the closure area.”
The city said it believes previously decided court cases will defend its right to have closed the park to the public, including reporters.
Jackson County’s chief legal counsel Joel Benton told KOIN 6 News Wednesday the county hasn’t yet been served the lawsuit, but that the county does not comment on pending litigation.