A year ago this week, DRCNet reported that the California Court of Appeal had overturned the "hippy profiling" marijuana convictions of Jason Fishbain and Chris White (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/283/hippieprofiling.shtml). The dreadlocked pair had been convicted after being pulled over on US Highway 101 in Northern California by a California Highway Patrol (CHP) officer notorious as an anti-drug zealot because their vehicle bore no front license plate -- registered in Arizona, it did not need one -- and because an air freshener was hanging from the rearview mirror. The officer then claimed he smelled burned marijuana and searched the vehicle over the protests of its occupants, finding five pounds of marijuana that Fishbain and White maintained was for medical use.
Now one of the men accosted by Officer Doug Mertz has filed a federal lawsuit naming Mertz, as well as the CHP officials and staffers responsible for hiring and training officers, as defendants. Jeffrey Fishbain, who is also the Americans for Safe Access coordinator in his north Humboldt County area, filed the lawsuit March 16. He seeks unspecified damages.
Fishbain suffered through years of legal travails, spending almost $125,000 according to an account posted on his web site (http://www.blutopiansociety.com). As the lawsuit puts it, he "suffered personal injuries, emotional distress, humiliation, embarrassment, damage to reputation, loss of earning capacity and the incurring of attorney fees to defend himself from the false charges."
The reason he suffered such indignities, the lawsuit alleges, is that Mertz and unnamed CHP staffers "acted in their individual capacities and with malice, oppression and in conscious disregard for (Fishbain's) health, safety and legal rights." The lawsuit points to Mertz's lack of probable cause in detaining Fishbain and charges that CHP higher-ups hired Mertz and others involved in the case "without adequate training or qualifications and, after their hire, inadequately trained and supervised them in the exercise of their authority... including stopping, detaining, searching, seizing and arresting citizens without probable cause."
Mertz is well-known among Humboldt County defense attorneys as an officer who never saw an air freshener that didn't seem like probable cause for a search. CHP should have reined him in, the suit says. CHP staffers "were aware of prior instances of Mertz (and other officers and officials) violating the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights of citizens, but took no steps to prevent the occurrence and/or reoccurrence of such incidents," the lawsuit alleges.
Fishbain's attorney, Richard Massa, told the McKinleyville Press Fishbain he had been drained by the years of legal hassles. "The legal fees alone are substantial, because my client had to deal with a couple of trials and an appeal," Massa said. But while Fishbain is the plaintiff in this case, Massa added, a victory for Fishbain would be a victory for the Constitution. "The Civil Rights Act is one of the most important laws in the United States," Massa said. "And it's the only law in which an individual can actually enforce their Constitutional rights. There is no way to vindicate their civil rights other than through a civil rights case. Mr. Fishbain is simply taking the only alternative he has to gain compensation for the wrong that was done to him."
And Californians with dreadlocks or air fresheners should thank him.