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Cops Admit They Violated First Amendment Rights Based on Vibes

A photo of a cop car's emergency siren, specifically focused on the blue emergency light currently turned on.

Police in the United States don’t serve the public, they serve the state and they serve themselves. It’s proven true with every new case of police brutality and state-sanctioned violence that comes out, and a recently settled case in Cook County, Illinois only further proves it. In what can only be described as a gross violation of First Amendment rights, in 2018, cops in Cook County arrested Amanda Jane Bergquist for taking video outside of a courthouse, deleting that video, and forcibly detaining her in front of a judge, among other illegal activities. Bergquist has her own YouTube channel, Pink Camera Magic, as a First Amendment auditor, where a citizen photographs and records public places as protected by the First Amendment to test those rights.

Bergquist’s case against Cook County was settled in 2022 for $15,000 but renewed attention has led to the case going viral on Twitch and TikTok this week. In depositions released over the past few months, Cook County Lieutenant Donald Milazzo and Sergeant Jennifer Larson were questioned in detail by Bergquist’s lawyer and claimed that she was “suspicious”, which gave them cause to arrest her. Despite claiming that there is no law that would prevent Amanda from recording the outside of the courthouse multiple times, both officers claim that someone not showing ID and recording made them feel unsafe. In other words, the cops arrested Amanda and violated her First Amendment rights based on ‘vibes.’

In that same set of depositions, Lt. Milazzo claims to not know someone’s Miranda Rights and whether to actually give them when arresting someone, despite being a cop for 27 years. And Lawson seems to not have a firm grasp of the law at all, claiming as much despite admitting that there was no cause for Bergquist to be arrested in 2018. “Just something as officers, we would consider unusual” is Lawson’s claim when asked if what Amanda did was actually illegal, and repeated claims that they felt unsafe because someone had a camera out.

This isn’t the first time the Cook County police have gotten into trouble, either, with a 2020 settlement of $14 million for public defenders who dealt with coordinated sexual abuse from detainees to which the sheriff’s office seemingly did nothing. And that isn’t surprising, considering another lawsuit recently settled for over $1 million where a court reporter was sexually harassed by multiple Cook County officers with no actual investigation conducted by the Chief Judge (and an attempt to actually dismiss the case entirely). In that same report, WGN 9 outlines how the Cook County taxpayers are actually responsible for the legal settlement budget of the county, which sits at $112 million for 2023.

Let me repeat this again, citing the multiple examples of legal precedent: cops have no obligation to protect you. The one thing that is supposedly their job is not something that they, or the United States judicial system, believe is their responsibility. The legal doctrine of qualified immunity as it’s known in the U.S. further complicates this, as it protects any government official from consequences against violating Constitutional rights unless they’ve violated “previously established law”. Except there aren’t any cases to point to because of qualified immunity protecting officers from facing any challenges, which gives police free reign to shoot people, arrest and detain people and carry out other forms of state violence with no oversight.

Qualified immunity also explains why Milazzo and Lawson are not facing any repercussions for their actions. In the 2021 District Court case, Amanda Bergquist actually lost to Cook County, upholding the notion of “suspicious activity” and suggesting that she has no further claim on which to sue the county. The $15k settlement is undoubtedly a fraction of the actual cost of the legal actions Bergquist has pursued and still leaves those same cops with the same power to violate anyone else’s First Amendment rights when they feel like it.

(featured image: Pixabay via Pexels)

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Joan Zahra Dark (they/them) is a freelance writer, organizer, and interdisciplinary artist. They love talking about queer comics, stories that can only be told through interactive mediums, worker cooperatives and gay robots. They’re based in Queens, NYC.