San Jose prepares to settle litigation with injured cop watcher
Nicholas Robinson poses for a photo with a Hayward police officer. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Robinson.

    San Jose appears to be settling litigation with a resident injured while trying to film police officers.

    Last week in closed session, the San Jose City Council discussed a lawsuit brought by Nicholas Robinson, a security guard who records police interactions. Robinson was arrested while monitoring police conducting an arrest near Highway 101 in November 2018. He claimed in a lawsuit officers broke his arm while detaining him and violated his Fourth Amendment rights.

    City Attorney Nora Frimann told San José Spotlight settlement negotiations conducted by the court are confidential. She added the city doesn’t have a signed settlement agreement yet.

    Robinson’s attorneys told the court a settlement agreement has been reached, according to federal records. The attorneys, who did not respond to requests for comment, told Robinson the city approved the settlement, according to a screenshot of a text message.

    Robinson told San José Spotlight he’s upset with the settlement award, which he said amounts to roughly $30,000—most of which will go toward attorney fees.

    “That’s not even going to cover my future surgery,” Robinson said, noting he has titanium rods and screws in his arms that will have to be replaced in several years.

    The settlement is far from the $1.5 million Robinson’s attorneys requested in September. In a court brief, they argued the short altercation resulted in a permanent disability.

    “Although defendants never told Mr. Robinson he was at least being detained, they tackled and broke his arm within a span of 12 seconds of meeting each other,” the attorneys state in a court filing made in September.

    His attorneys said in court briefs that Robinson sustained a broken arm that left him with permanent nerve damage. They claim the injury has cost Robinson approximately $75,000 in medical bills and at least $10,000 in lost wages.

    Paying the price

    San Jose’s city attorney said in a court brief that Robinson interfered with a felony warrant arrest at a homeless encampment by shining a flashlight at police officers, preventing them from continuing their operation.

    Recordings from police body cameras show an officer demanding Robinson turn his flashlight off. After Robinson turned it off, he protested he had a right to be there and gestured with the end of his flashlight. This prompted the officers to grab Robinson and lift his arms above his head, which allegedly resulted in the injury.

    Raj Jayadev, co-founder of Silicon Valley De-Bug—a community organizing group that focuses on the criminal justice system—told San José Spotlight there’s a long tradition of civilians monitoring police to prevent or at least witness misconduct.

    “It’s an extremely important activity, and I think Nick should be applauded for it,” Jayadev said. “He’s actually had to pay the price with his body.”

    A recent audit of the San Jose Police Department found a quarter of officers received at least one complaint in 2020, and 23% of complaints contained allegations about use of force.

    Attorney Robert Powell recently secured a $400,000 settlement for a San Jose couple allegedly injured by SJPD officers during a 2019 arrest. He told San José Spotlight numerous factors may come into play when settling this kind of case, including the extent and severity of an injury, whether the plaintiff was resisting arrest and if there was missing body camera footage.

    “The problem with a number in a vacuum is it’s kind of meaningless,” said Powell, referring to Robinson’s lawsuit. “Does it seem low? That’s fair to say. But that’s about all one can say that’s intellectually honest.”

    Robinson documents traffic stops in an effort to increase transparency around police activities, he said. Recording law enforcement officers in a public space is allowed under the First Amendment, but restrictions apply when it interferes with police work—something several departments allege about Robinson.

    Multiple law enforcement agencies have restraining orders against Robinson, including the San Jose Police Department, Santa Clara Police Department, California Highway Patrol and the San Jose Police Officers’ Association. According to court records, Robinson has interfered with traffic stops by recording police officers with his cellphone, shining his flashlight at officers and sometimes shouting “vulgarities.”

    Robinson said he supports law enforcement, but wants to create an additional layer of accountability for police. He noted body cameras are supposed to fulfill this function, but he doesn’t trust them.

    “We see time and time again, even when they do have the cameras on, it doesn’t even hold them accountable,” Robinson said.

    Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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