On December 20, 2002, Terry Bressi was arrested at a roadblock in Arizona being operated by a joint task force including tribal police and agents of the US Department of Homeland Security.
After all of the trumped-up charges brought against Mr. Bressi were dismissed , he sued the tribal police department, the DHS, and the individuals who were responsible for establishing and operating the illegal roadblock for violating his civil rights.
Almost ten years of litigation later, the tribal police defendants have now paid Mr. Bressi $210,000 to reimburse his legal expenses (including some of those related to the work of attorneys associated with the Identity Project and our parent organization, the First Amendment Project) and settle his claims against the police.
The police tried to justify the roadblock as having been solely a sobriety checkpoint, but the police on the scene admitted to Mr. Bressi that they had no reason to doubt his sobriety or suspect him of any other violation of law. He wasn’t an Indian subject to tribal law, and the roadblock was on a state highway and public right-of-way through the reservation.
In reality, as evidence revealed in the course of Mr. Bressi’s lawsuit made clear, the “sobriety check” by tribal police was merely the pretext being used to try to justify the suspicionless search and seizure of innocent travelers, for general Federal law enforcement purposes.
This settlement is far from sufficient to fully compensate Mr. Bressi for the damages he suffered and the years of work he invested in the pursuit of justice for himself and others similarly denied their right to move freely within the U.S., including on public rights-of-way.
The settlement is, however, an important reminder that even police and others acting with and at the behest of the DHS can be held personally liable for their role in violations of travelers’ rights.
We hope that other police officers and civilian DHS collaborators (such as airport checkpoint staff and contractors) will get the message, and start to question illegal orders from the DHS and other Federal agents.
We congratulate Mr. Bressi on obtaining this settlement, and commend him for his diligence in pursuing his case for the last decade.