Tampa to pay $41,500 to settle claim over cellphone video arrest (w/video)

Published Dec. 6, 2014

TAMPA — Taxpayers will pay $41,500 to settle a claim for damages from a Tampa woman arrested as she made a cellphone video of her husband's DUI arrest.

The City Council this week approved the settlement to Leeanna Presson, 40.

Presson was arrested on Feb. 2, 2013, in front of her Interbay-area home. In a claim sent to City Hall, her attorney, Michael Maddux of Tampa, outlined this sequence of events:

Presson and her husband, William Viers, had friends visiting when Viers went out for cigarettes. Police Cpl. Mark Altimari pulled him over near his home.

When Presson approached her husband's truck to see what was going on, Altimari told her to back away. She did, then went inside to get her cellphone after seeing what she felt was some rough treatment of her husband. She shot the video from 20 to 30 feet away.

There are two videos from that night. The first, about 2 ½ minutes, mainly shows several vehicles. As Presson moves in closer, a man says, stay over there.

"I have every right to be here," she said.

"No, you don't," said the man, who is not seen.

"Actually, I do," she said. "I know my rights. I talked to my attorney."

The second video, which lasts 16 seconds, shows virtually nothing, but Presson can be heard pleading, "Please don't take me to jail. Please. I am a good person."

"You should have thought about that when I told you three times to leave," a man's voice said.

"You didn't tell me three times to leave," she said. "You told me once."

In his claim letter, Maddux said Officer Lanard Taylor told Presson to stop making the video and "rushed to grab the phone away from her."

When Presson said she was within her rights to shoot the video, Maddux said, Taylor pushed her up against a fence, swung her around and handcuffed her, bruising her wrists and hurting her back and shoulders.

Presson, who works as an account representative for a printing company, had no criminal record in Florida. She was charged with obstructing or opposing an officer without violence, a misdemeanor.

Three months later, Hillsborough prosecutors said there was insufficient evidence of obstruction and dropped the charge. (Viers, 41, pleaded no contest to DUI with a blood-alcohol content over 0.15 percent. He was judged guilty and sentenced to 12 months' probation, 50 hours of community service and a six-month revocation of his license.)

Presson did not interfere with police, Maddux said. Her claim against the city alleged false arrest, excessive force and a violation of her rights under the First Amendment.

"When she's not even the focus of the criminal conduct that's being investigated, a DUI, it's definitely misguided to direct force onto a person who's exercising their First Amendment rights," Maddux said.

In a summary for the City Council, assistant city attorney Ursula Richardson said City Hall denied any liability. Still, she added that if Presson sued and won a verdict, the judgment probably would be as big as or bigger than the settlement.

Police spokeswoman Janelle McGregor said Taylor would not comment. Altimari has since retired and could not be reached.

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Presson's claim reflects a larger trend shaping police work.

A while back, police Chief Jane Castor told a group of students at City Hall that one of the biggest changes she has seen in her three-decade career is that now everyone has a camera.

Increasingly that includes police themselves. Tampa this week opened bids from five companies vying to sell the city body-mounted digital cameras for officers. Also, President Barack Obama said he would seek funding to provide 50,000 body cameras to police nationwide.

In Tampa, new officers are trained "on the importance of protecting the constitutional rights of all citizens," including the right to make videos of "on-duty police officers as long as they don't interfere with law enforcement duties," McGregor said. That's backed up with continuing education, supervisor workshops and legal bulletins.

In March — months after Presson made her claim — senior assistant city attorney Kirby Rainsberger warned Tampa officers, "don't expect the courts to protect you from the annoyance of having your general activities recorded from an appropriate distance."

In a one-page legal bulletin, Rainsberger said, "with very few restrictions, this recording is both legal and consistent with TPD's philosophy of openness and transparency."

Even when the people behind the camera make profane comments, "this sort of activity is generally constitutionally protected up until the point where the recording individual substantially interferes with law enforcement duties," he said. "The officer bears a heavy burden to prove that the interference substantially outweighs the protected activity."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.