NORTHAMPTON — A judge has ruled that a civil-rights lawsuit brought against Northampton by Eric Matlock, who city police pepper-sprayed and arrested in 2017, can proceed to trial.
Hampshire Superior Court Judge Jane Mulqueen’s Sept. 19 decision came after the city of Northampton filed for “summary judgment” — a typical motion that either side can make during a lawsuit, asking a judge to make a ruling without a full trial. Lawsuits against law enforcement officials often fail during the summary judgment process if a judge rules that those officials are entitled to “qualified immunity,” which is a legal doctrine that protects government employees from personal liability in civil lawsuits.
Northampton police arrested Matlock in August 2017, alleging that he was blocking the doors of City Hall, resisted arrest and hit an officer. Matlock was there holding a sign as an act of protest. He was ultimately charged with disorderly conduct, assault and battery on a police officer, and resisting arrest.
However, in September 2018, a jury acquitted Matlock on all of those charges. Witnesses gave conflicting testimony over whether Matlock was blocking the steps when police arrived or whether he resisted in any way. In 2020, Matlock sued the city and five of its police officers, alleging that they assaulted him, violated his civil rights, retaliated against him “for his exercise of protected speech” and wrongly accused him of crimes.
Mulqueen’s decision dismissed several of Matlock’s claims, but allowed him to move forward to trial with three others against Northampton and two of its officers: that the city violated his civil rights, defamed him and was negligent in how it trained its officers and maintained its station’s eye-washing station.
The civil-rights and negligence claims that Mulqueen declined to dismiss pertain in part to the question of whether Matlock was blocking the doors and, in the police officers’ telling, created a “hazardous condition” doing so.
In her decision, Mulqueen said that Matlock had provided evidence upon which a reasonable jury could conclude that he wasn’t blocking the entrance to City Hall and, therefore, that the officers didn’t have probable cause to believe he was committing a misdemeanor when they arrested him.
Matlock’s attorney, Dana Goldblatt, has also argued that the department was negligent in the training of its officers.
In court documents, Goldblatt pointed to testimony that Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper gave during a deposition, saying that police have the lawful authority to arrest protesters who “create a hazardous condition.” Mulqueen, however, noted in her decision that “Kasper’s instruction appears to have been incorrect” if that person is arrested for disorderly conduct during a political protest.
A disorderly conduct charge requires prosecutors to prove that the defendant created a hazardous condition with “no legitimate purpose.” In allowing Matlock’s claim to proceed, Mulqueen cited a 1989 court decision, Commonwealth vs. Joel Feigenbaum, which found that a man who blocked a tow truck at Otis Air Force Base had done so for political reasons and, therefore, with a legitimate purpose.
“In fact, Matlock points to the deposition testimony of the chief of police that she instructed Northampton police officers that they could lawfully arrest protesters on disorderly conduct charges if those protesters created a hazardous condition,” Mulqueen wrote. “This instruction runs counter to the holding in Feigenbaum.”
Police Chief Jody Kasper and Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra did not respond to an email requesting comment on this article.
In a statement, Goldblatt said that the Northampton Police Department’s training “runs counter to long-standing legal authority.”
“So what we have is a police chief actively and openly training officers to make illegal arrests,” Goldblatt wrote.
Mulqueen also denied Northampton’s motion to dismiss Matlock’s claim that the city was negligent because the eye-washing station at the police station had low water pressure. Northampton had argued that the eye-washing station was working, and that he was also allowed to wash his eyes in a sink.
“At his deposition, Matlock testified that, following his arrest … his eyes hurt for days,” Mulqueen wrote. “Based on this evidence, a reasonable jury could infer that the sink faucet also had low water pressure and conclude that Matlock was not given adequate aid in attempting to rinse his eyes after being pepper sprayed.”
Mulqueen also declined to dismiss Matlock’s allegation that police officers defamed him by making false statements about him in their arrest reports.
Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.
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