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Driver arrested for filming police claims to be journalist, considers lawsuit

The public safety training center's master plan as of November 2022. (Image by Atlanta Police Foundation.)

By John Ruch

The man controversially arrested while filming police from a car at Atlanta’s public safety training center last month claims he was working as a journalist. The police claim he was performing “countersurveillance” for an “extremist group.”

Either way, the arrest was unconstitutional, according to prominent Atlanta civil rights attorney Gerry Weber, because officers used the state “hands-free driving” law as a retaliatory excuse to stop the completely legal activity of filming police in public.

“It was clear they were using [the hands-free driving law] as an excuse to search and impound my car, which they did…,” said Owen Ramsby in an email about his Dec. 13 arrest, adding that his phone was seized by police who refuse to return it. “…This is a chilling precedent and a clear violation of constitutionally protected rights.”

Ramsby said he has consulted Weber about the arrest and is considering a lawsuit.

Ramsby was arrested during a police raid of the training center site, which resulted in trespassing protesters being charged with domestic terrorism. That triggered controversy about free-speech impacts and allegations from civil rights attorneys that police are engaging in retaliatory arrests against police-reform protesters. As SaportaReport previously revealed, the City is facing a pending lawsuit alleging illegal arrests of demonstrators and unconstitutional detention of at least two journalists documenting them. The Atlanta Police Department (APD) is conducting an internal investigation into the case of one of the journalists. APD is already under a court order to train police officers about the right to film officers due to previous lawsuits, including some with defendants represented by Weber, who is also on the board of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.

Civil liberties concerns were heightened by remarks about the domestic terrorism charges made by APD Deputy Chief Carven Tyus at a Dec. 15 meeting of a training center advisory committee. Tyus encouraged committee members to spread a “narrative” that any protester from out of state is inherently a terrorist. Tyus also revealed Ramsby’s arrest, without identifying him, and described it as a way to stop him from filming.

“We had an individual who was out attempting to film officers,” Tyus said in the meeting. “We were able to get him with the hands-free law as he drove by filming our officers, so we were able to lock him up.”

Civil rights attorney Zach Greenamyre previously said that arresting someone for a low-level offense as retaliation for First Amendment-protected activity is unconstitutional. Weber previously said that Tyus’s comments would be “exhibit Number One” if APD were sued over the Dec. 13 arrest.

Provided with a copy of the police report by SaportaReport, Weber said it “confirms that the citizen was targeted because of their repeated filming, a retaliatory arrest” that was illegal.

The report says the arrest was made during the raid against “violent extremists” at the training center site on Key Road as some people were throwing rocks at patrol cars and attempting to block the road with debris. The report says Ramsby’s Volkswagen Jetta was targeted by police because it was seen circling the site.

“The driver was observed holding and using his cellular telephone while driving and holding it out of the window by Unit 36, Captain Harper,” the report says. “Harper called for a traffic stop to be made on the vehicle, charges to be made, and an arrest to be made.”

The report says Ramsby was jailed, his car impounded, and his pet dog taken to the County animal shelter. Police seized two cell phones and a drone that were given to a Sgt. Sommers of “homeland security,” although it’s unclear which agency was being referenced — local, state or federal.

The report says Sommers was “aware of the identity of [the] driver. The driver is part of the extremist group and was actually doing countersurveillance for the group.”

Ramsby, who is a scholarship student at the University of Southern California Price School of Public Policy, says the police description of him is false and that he was filming the police with the intent of publishing it with a media outlet.

“I am trying to pursue some form of career in journalism and independent media, and covering the movement in Atlanta was a big reason why I was there,” said Ramsby, who says he grew up in the Atlanta area as well as in South Carolina. He said an “independent outlet” was interested in purchasing his footage but that he cannot access it because the police still have his phone. He said he is also writing opinion pieces about the training center that he planned to publish through the Atlanta Community Press Collective, which has published many articles and reports opposing the training center.

“I had heard that they were raiding the forest that day and was attempting to document the militarized operation on camera, as their uses of force out there are hidden from public view,” said Ramsby. “I am not a part of any group, nor have I ever met anyone involved in the forest defense who is.”

“There is nothing remotely ‘extremist’ about any aspect of this nonviolent movement,” he added. “The only aspect of this story that I’ve observed to qualify as extremist would be the degree of fascism in the state violence and media manipulation imposed by so-called law enforcement in their efforts to repress this movement by extralegal means.”

Ramsby said police refuse to release his phones and drone, calling them “evidence in an ongoing investigation.” He said one phone was a “burner” and that he has never used the drone. But the other phone is one he uses for work and its loss is a problem for his income.

Weber says that Ramsby’s reason for filming the police activity makes no difference in terms of the arrest being unlawful. “You have a right to film in public places, and they were not executing an arrest of him for any other offense,” said Weber. Even undercover officers can be filmed in public places, he said, under federal court rulings that are binding law in Georgia.

Weber said he is also concerned about the possibility of further First Amendment infringements, such as officers viewing or deleting images from the devices.

Ramsby said he has talked with Weber about his case and “the potential for a suit, but no decisions have been made as of yet.” Weber said he is not officially representing Ramsby at this point.

Atlanta Municipal Court records show Ramsby was found guilty of the hands-free driving offense on Dec. 19 and fined. Someone of the same name also was cited in October for the minor offense of driving in an emergency lane or a divider between merge lanes and was issued a notice of failure to appear.

Several people arrested in connection with the “Defend the Atlanta Forest” protest movement live outside Atlanta, which APD has emphasized to delegitimize them as “outside agitators” or terrorists. Asked about his own California residency, Ramsby said the issue is a red herring.

“I don’t consider myself from out of town, as I grew up in part in Atlanta and in the surrounding region and have family from there, but I really don’t think that’s relevant,” he said. You don’t have to be from Atlanta to know that the destruction of an environmentally critical forest for the sake of building what would be the largest militarized police compound in the country would be a disaster for the people of the city and the surrounding area… The people here know this, which is why there has been strong, majority disapproval of this development, which the APF [Atlanta Police Foundation] has tried to sneak through underhandedly and anti-democratically through backroom deals with private capital and corrupt politicians.”

 

Editor’s Note: The writer was once represented by Weber in a police-filming lawsuit against the City that is unrelated to the current protests but was part of a 2015 contempt of court ruling regarding the right to film officers.

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4 Comments

  1. Kamlesh Prajapat January 12, 2023 7:16 am

    how to surive lawsuitReport

    Reply
  2. Dana Blankenhorn January 13, 2023 9:51 am

    This is getting out of hand. I don’t want the resulting lawsuits to bankrupt my city. But they might.
    The quotes in this article are enough to get a plaintiff’s attorney salivating.
    The Mayor and Council need to get control over this situation.Report

    Reply
  3. Scott Carlisle January 13, 2023 3:49 pm

    Include the video…or this story slips. Dramatically. That or revert back to your soap box covering Buckhead City (sadly delicious).Report

    Reply

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