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In negotiations this summer, Patrick Thompson and Martel Miller arrived at a settlement in a civil suit against local authorities claiming their civil rights had been violated when eavesdropping charges were leveled against them in 2004 for videotaping the police.
In June 2005, Thompson and Miller filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court against Champaign, Urbana, and Champaign County. The complaint contained three major components: 1) Patrick Thompson had been racially profiled by Champaign police in three traffic stops in late 2003. 2) Martel Miller had his Fourth Amendment rights violated when Champaign police illegally seized his videotape and equipment. 3) Assistant State’s Attorney Elizabeth Dobson had maliciously prosecuted Miller and Thompson on charges of felony eavesdropping.
Those named in the original suit included Champaign City Manager Steve Carter, Champaign Police Chief R.T. Finney, Deputy Chiefs John Murphy and Troy Daniels, Sgt. David Griffet, Officer Justus Clinton, State’s Attorney John Piland, and Assistant State’s Attorney Elizabeth Dobson.
In a series of events that led up to the eavesdropping charges, there were several questionable traffic stops. Thompson was stopped by Champaign Police in October 2003 for an alleged seat belt violation. In December 2003, Thompson was sitting in his car in a parking lot waiting to merge into traffic when Champaign Sgt. David Griffet approached him and asked what was in the cup he was drinking from, apparently suspecting it was alcohol. Thompson answered that he was drinking tea. Although he was allowed to go, Thompson says he was followed by several police cars and later was stopped by one of them. He was given a warning ticket for having a license plate light out, an illegitimate claim according to Thompson. He entered a formal complaint for what he said was a case of racial profiling.
In January 9, 2004, a meeting took place between City Manager Steve Carter, several members of the Champaign police command staff, Patrick Thompson, and John Lee Johnson, then still alive. Despite Johnson’s support of Thompson, the complaint was dismissed. In a letter dated February 5, 2004, Steve Carter wrote:
“After reviewing the information from our meeting and the police reports, and after conferring with the City Attorney with regard to the legal arguments made by Mr. Johnson, it is my decision to uphold the decisions of the Chief. As to whether the stops were racially motivated, I do not feel that there were facts presented to support this allegation […]. Finally, neither the fact that you were not ticketed for the alleged seat belt violation nor that you were issued a warning ticket for the equipment violation seems to indicate racial bias.”
Exhausting the complaint process, Thompson took direction action, teaming up with long-time friend Martel Miller to videotape police encounters with African Americans. After notifying authorities of their intentions in a letter dated March 26, 2004, Thompson and Miller hit the streets collecting video footage. As early as June 2004, Champaign police moved to shut them down. Indeed, Thompson captured video images of Assistant State’s Attorney Elizabeth Dobson watching him with her own video camera.
On August 7, 2004, Champaign police seized Martel Miller’s camera and tape without arresting him and without a warrant. On August 10, the State’s Attorney filed charges against Miller, but Judge Heidi Ladd refused to agree to a warrant and instead issued a summons for him to appear in court. On August 23, Miller was formally indicted on two counts of felony eavesdropping, an antiquated law that was never enforced—that is, not until two black activists started videotaping police. The following day, August 24, Thompson was arrested on charges of home invasion and sexual abuse, and held on an exorbitant $250,000 bond. On September 2, 2004, Thompson was charged for the first time with eavesdropping and Miller was hit with a third charge.
State’s Attorney John Piland told the News-Gazette (Oct. 17, 2004) that the eavesdropping charges were filed at the request of the Champaign Police Department’s command staff. The police, he said, wanted the charges kept against Thompson and Miller to bring them to the table for a conversation.
City Manager Steve Carter refuted Piland, saying “R.T. was consistent from early on that we were interested in having the charges dropped.” Chief Finney stuck to this script, telling me in 2007 that he knew nothing about plot to charge Thompson and Miller, and that if he had known he would have put a stop to it.
An affidavit from Elizabeth Dobson refutes Finney’s claim. According to Dobson, on August 9, 2004, she met with command staff at the Champaign Police Station to discuss charges against Thompson and Miller. Dobson states that Chief Finney’s concern was that Champaign “not be the first or only police agency alleged as the victim of the Eavesdropping offense.” Chief Finney, Dobson claims, wanted the University of Illinois Police Department to go along with the charges. After UIPD refused to participate, the prosecution still went forward.
In the following weeks there were several public screenings of Citizen’s Watch, the video produced from Thompson and Miller’s footage, and editorials in the News-Gazette criticizing Piland. The phony eavesdropping charges turned out to be a great embarrassment for local authorities. Piland eventually dropped the charges against Miller, and after a new State’s Attorney was elected in November 2004, eavesdropping charges against Thompson were also dismissed.
Since it was filed in 2005, the federal suit managed to withstand challenges by an army of city, county, and private attorneys. The complaint was originally written and defended by Thompson, and was later picked up by Bob Kirchner and Ruth Wyman who had stepped in to provide counsel on Thompson’s sexual abuse and home invasion case. The legal accomplishments of Thompson, a legal novice, have truly been extraordinary. Thompson defended himself in his first trial against criminal charges of sexual abuse invasion and received a hung jury. He won a small claims suit against his former attorney Harvey Welch. And now he has forced a settlement in a federal courthouse.
Yet despite the egregiousness of public officials, legal immunity still protected many of their actions. The suit originally asked for more than a million dollars in compensation, but in the end the settlement came in far below that figure. Although there was no confidentiality agreement that often goes along with such a settlement, Thompson and Miller asked that the dollar amount not be made public.
A settlement in this case indicates that local authorities were unwilling to take the stand to defend their actions in 2004. The full extent of their conspiracy to send Patrick Thompson and Martel Miller to prison will remain unknown.