News Gathering | Press Access

Dallas Transit Agency to Pay $345,000 to Settle Police Recording Lawsuit


On November 11, Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) and freelance journalist Avi Adelman reached a settlement after a DART police officer wrongfully arrested Adelman and then misled authorities about the circumstances around the arrest. 

On February 9, 2016, Adelman was arrested while photographing a group of Dallas paramedics while they were treating a person who had overdosed on synthetic marijuana. Stephanie Branch, the police officer who arrested him, originally claimed that Adelman had interfered with the paramedics operations, so she arrested him for trespassing. An internal investigation later revealed that Adelman was “never viewed less than approximately 10 feet from the actual medical scene.”

“The evidence indicates that Officer Branch did violate the DART Administrative Employment Manual, and did not refrain from activity which was illegal or could reflect negatively on DART when she made various inconsistent or mistaken statements on her DART Police [I]ncident Report,” the internal report said.

Several months after the incident, Adelman filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas against DART and Officer Branch for violating his First and Fourth Amendment rights. The complaint said that Branch had arrested Adelman for documenting the incident, and that she lacked probable cause for the arrest.

The district court ruled that Branch was entitled to qualified immunity against Adelman’s First Amendment complaint because “case law in the Fifth Circuit had not clearly established the right to take photographs of first responders in public places at the time of his arrest.” (Turner v. Driver,  the Fifth Circuit case that held that the public has a First Amendment right to record police, was decided in 2017).

But when it came to Adelman’s claim that Branch had violated his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizures, the court found enough evidence to deny Branch qualified immunity on those grounds. 

Branch appealed that portion of the ruling, asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to reverse the district court’s decision because she had been “on sick leave” when DART updated its policy. A three-judge panel found her reasoning lacking.

“No reasonable officer under these circumstances would conclude that she had authority to eject a person complying with DART policies from public property–and then arrest that person for criminal trespass when he failed to depart,” the appeals court ruled. 

On Monday, November 11, Adelman issued a press release announcing that he had agreed to an out-of-court settlement with DART’s Board of Directors, who agreed to pay him $345,000 in exchange for retracting his lawsuit.  

Adelman said he planned to donate $2,500 of his settlement money to National Press Photographers Association, and another $2,500 to Texas’ Freedom of Information Foundation for their work defending photographer’s First Amendment rights. 

Reason Dallas Morning News