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Medford, county answer radio reporter’s arrest lawsuit

The city of Medford and Jackson County are fighting a former Jefferson Public Radio reporter’s civil rights lawsuit surrounding her arrest in September 2020 while covering the closure of an unauthorized camp at Hawthorne Park.

The city of Medford says it was not properly notified that reporter April Rosemary Fonseca would claim police battered her, and Jackson County claims any injuries she suffered were “caused by her own negligence.”

Fonseca, who reports using the professional name April Ehrlich, filed her lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Medford last month on claims including false arrest, battery and constitutional rights violations stemming from her Sept. 22, 2020, arrest on charges of trespassing and resisting arrest because she failed to stay in a designated media staging area while police closed a large unauthorized camp at the park that formed in the aftermath of the Labor Day 2020 fires. The city later dropped the charges.

The Medford City Attorney’s office disputed each of Ehrlich’s civil claims in an Oct. 25 response filed in District Court, demanding “a jury trial and request that judgment be entered in their favor dismissing (Ehrlich’s) complaint.”

Ehrlich was among 10 people arrested in Hawthorne Park while police closed the park. Last month, Medford Municipal Court Judge William Haberlach dismissed Ehrlich’s trespassing charge, and the Medford City Attorney’s Office, in turn, dropped the remaining criminal resisting arrest charge.

Weeks after the criminal case’s dismissal, Sept. 20, Ehrlich filed her federal suit with the aid of Portland lawyer Jason Kafoury. The civil suit names defendants including Medford City Manager Brian Sjothun, retired Medford police chief Scott Clauson and Deputy Chief Trevor Arnold, who served as the incident commander during the park closure. The suit alleges numerous constitutional rights violations related to freedom of the press, freedom of speech and unlawful search and seizure.

Ehrlich’s lawsuit claims Medford police allowed campers on the premises to remove their possessions and allowed volunteers to help.

“No exception was made for journalists,” Kafoury states. “Instead, police officers designated an area, near the noisy I-5 overpass on a busy street, outside one end of the approximately 20-acre park. ... Journalists could not see, let alone hear, all the activities within the park.”

When reached for comment, a spokeswoman with the city of Medford issued a prepared statement dated Sept. 28: “The city’s position is that the temporary closure of the park to all members of the public was lawful, and journalists have no special or unique right of physical access to property that has been closed to the general public.”

The statement cites case law to make its claim that public entities have the right “to temporarily close public property for repairs and cleaning,” and when police action temporarily closes an area “it is closed to reporters just like other members of the public.”

“Fonseca (Ehrlich) was instructed about the closure area and was arrested only after refusing a lawful order to leave the closure area,” the statement reads in part.

Ehrlich’s lawsuit notes that others, such as volunteers, were allowed on the premises. In the Oct. 25 filing, Medford City Attorney Eric Mitton defended the prohibition of journalists for two days while other volunteers were allowed.

“It was neither arbitrary and capricious, nor otherwise unlawful, for the city to allow a temporary and narrow exception to the Hawthorne Park closure for individuals who were actively assisting unhoused individuals pack up and leave the closure area (so that those unhoused individuals would neither lose possessions, nor have to recover those possessions from the city’s custody),” Mitton’s response states.

Ehrlich’s lawsuit named the law enforcement officers who actually detained Ehrlich: Medford police Sgt. Steve Furst, Medford officers Michael Todd and James Barringer and Jackson County Community Justice parole and probation officer Anna Stokes.

Ehrlich alleges Furst approached her while she was documenting events in the park with audio recording gear, told her she was trespassing and ordered her to leave the park.

“Furst then and there grabbed (Ehrlich’s) right wrist and told her she was under arrest,” Ehrlich’s lawsuit states.

Ehrlich’s lawsuit claims Furst grabbed her right elbow while Stokes grabbed her left arm and forced it behind her back. Medford officers Michael Todd and James Barringer each grabbed arms and further forced them behind her back.

“These defendants handcuffed plaintiff while she repeatedly identified herself as a reporter and stated she was in the park to do her job,” Ehrlich’s lawsuit stated.

The city of Medford, in response, stated they “admit that (Ehrlich) was then placed under arrest,” but denied her “characterization of that arrest.”

The city and county both alleged in their responses that Ehrlich’s own conduct contributed to her injuries.

“Any alleged pain in the arms, wrists or otherwise from the handcuffing process was the direct result of (Ehrlich’s) own physical resistance during the handcuffing process,” Mitton stated. “Any alleged physical leg-to-leg contact during the handcuffing process was a result of (Ehrlich) herself ‘kicking her feet about’ as documented by Anna Stokes,” the city states.

Stokes used force “she reasonably believed to be necessary,” the county stated.

Her reasons included to defend other officers from physical force “and/or a third person from the use or imminent use of physical force” and to prevent “damage to county property.”

Upcoming hearings in the case include one by phone set for Dec. 12, records show. The hearing will address what pretrial discovery still needs to be completed and could potentially set a trial date, court records show.

Reach web editor Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTwebeditor.