The saga of George Thompson, the Fall River man who was arrested for recording a police officer, is emblematic of America's tiered justice system, where ordinary people are punished just for exercising their rights, but powerful people like police officers face no repercussions whatsoever even when the brazenly break the law.
George Thompson was arrested by Fall River police officer Thomas Barboza in January, 2014 after he used his iPhone to record the officer even though recording police is protected by the First Amendment. While Thompson was still facing wiretapping and resisting arrest charges, a police department employee wiped his phone, destroying the video and all other data on it. The police department tried to blame Thompson for deleting the video, claiming without evidence that he might have used a cloud service to do it, until a company they hired to examine the phone determined a police employee had done it.
After Thompson's charges were dropped, we made a public records request to the police department for documents related to his case. The department violated the public records law in a number of ways, including trying to charge us more money for copies than state law allows, so we filed an appeal with the Secretary of the Commonwealth's office. The secretary's office sided with us and ordered the police to lower the fee, but Fall River police chief Dan Racine ignored the order and told a reporter from The Herald News that he would need to be taken to court in order to follow the law.
Despite not doing anything wrong, Thompson spent a night in jail, faced the possibility of years in prison, and had to attend multiple court hearings before the charges against him were finally dropped.
The police, on the other hand, have faced no repercussions for wrongfully arresting Thompson, destroying evidence and other personal data, and outspokenly refusing to comply with the state's public records law.
It's been months since the charges against Thompson were dropped, but none of the police employees involved in violating his rights are facing any legal consequences. Neither Thomas Barboza nor the employee who wiped Thompson's phone have been arrested or charged.
And now it has become clear that none of the police officers involved in violating the public records law will be prosecuted either.
After the police department refused to comply with the secretary's order, we asked for our case to be referred to the attorney general's office on January 5. The secretary's office simply ignored our request for months. Finally, in May, the secretary's office referred the case, but never told us they had done so.
This was actually the first time the secretary's office referred a public records dispute to the attorney general's office in about five years. Due to the dysfunctional relationship between the two agencies, the secretary's office stopped referring cases until Maura Healey replaced Martha Coakley as attorney general and vowed to make enforcing the law a priority.
While that's a baby step in the right direction, the attorney general's office has apparently chosen to not hold the Fall River police accountable for refusing to comply with the law.
Breaking the public records law is a crime punishable by up to a year in jail and hundreds of dollars in fines and the attorney general's office appears to be derelict in it's duty to enforce that law. We have still not been contacted about any prosecutions of Fall River police employees for violating the law.
That's America's “justice” system in a nutshell.
If you're an ordinary person, you can go to jail and be prosecuted just for hurting a cop's feelings. If, on the other hand, you're a cop, you can break the law without consequence.