Free speech: 'This case proves things can be misconstrued'
A Meridian man who was charged with felony witness intimidation last year after he vented on Facebook about an arrest filed a federal lawsuit against the police officers involved in investigating the social media post.
Matthew Townsend’s attorney, Aaron Tribble, filed the lawsuit Tuesday. It alleges that Townsend has been deprived of his First Amendment rights, in part because he’s now afraid of being arrested for expressing opinions on social media.
“Mr. Townsend believes that his right to free speech has been suppressed and/or chilled,” the suit says.
Townsend is a gun rights advocate and participates in the Cop Watch movement, recording police stops in an attempt to ensure transparency and accountability.
The defendants named in the lawsuit are Meridian Police Deputy Chief Tracy Basterrechea and Officer Shannon Taylor. At the time, Basterrechea managed the department’s Facebook account and he asked Taylor to investigate.
The suit requests compensatory and punitive damages to be determined by a jury, as well as attorney fees.
In a March 18, 2015, Facebook post, Townsend expressed frustration at being arrested and charged with misdemeanor resisting and obstructing in January, after he walked away from an officer who indicated he had broken the law when crossing the street. In the Facebook post, he “tagged” the Meridian police department and family members of the officer who arrested him. Facebook tagging is a way to identify others and notify them that they’ve been mentioned.
The next night, police arrested Townsend at gunpoint at his apartment, the suit says. He was charged with felony witness intimidation, a crime that carries a penalty of up to five years in prison and a $50,000 fine.
After a mistrial in January, prosecutors dismissed the felony intimidation charge as part of a plea deal. Townsend pleaded guilty in February to the misdemeanor resisting and obstructing charge as part of the deal.
Townsend couldn’t sue prosecutors because they have immunity from civil rights suits. But he did have Tribble file a complaint with the Idaho State Bar, asking that the city and county prosecutors involved in “a year of frivolous persecution” against him be sanctioned or disciplined.
The prosecutors named in the complaint are: Abagail Germaine, Jan Bennetts, Kari Higbee, Roger Bourne, Tanner Stellmon and James Vogt.
Tribble said felony witness intimidation couldn’t be proved because there wasn’t any evidence that Townsend intended to alter or affect the testimony of the officer who arrested him.