A federal court judge found Monday that two immigration officials "very seriously" and intentionally interfered with a Spanish-language newspaper photographer in the course of covering news and awarded him and his paper nearly $300,000 in damages.
Referring to actions of the agents during incidents involving photographer Octavio Gomez, U.S. District Judge Mariana R. Pfaelzer said "the conduct was outrageous and it was intentional."
Gomez, a Mexican national employed as a photographer by Los Angeles-based La Opinion newspaper, said after the ruling Monday that it was the principle, not the monetary award, that was important.
His publisher-editor, Ignacio E. Lozano Jr., agreed. "While we appreciate the damages that were awarded, the most important thing in this case was the principle" that journalists should be free to carry out their assignments without harassment, he said.
"We do not want our (reporters and photographers) to be intimidated by immigration officials, whether they are legal foreign aliens, as Mr. Gomez is, or native Americans," Lozano said.
The 1983 lawsuit filed by Gomez and the paper against the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and the agents contended that Gomez was harassed and assaulted while covering INS activities and that this was an unconstitutional attempt to suppress their right to gather and publish news.
The INS, represented in court by Assistant U.S. Atty. Stephen E. O'Neil, contended that the officers were acting within their authority by asking Gomez for credentials proving he was in the country legally.
The agents denied using abusive language or threats and O'Neil defended their actions, saying they were just doing their jobs at each of the three 1981 incidents alleged in the suit.
In the first incident, Aug. 20, 1981, Gomez was photographing a demonstration by a group of churchwomen protesting the deportation of Salvadoran refugees.
Gomez testified that while he was taking pictures of immigration agents clearing a driveway of protesters, someone's hand covered the lens of his camera. The agents led him aside and one, defendant Stuart Martin, took his camera and press credentials, Gomez told the court.
During the incident he said he was told he was on "limited status," which he interpreted as a threat that he could be deported. Gomez has been a legal U.S. resident since 1968 and has worked at La Opinion for about seven years.
On the witness stand, Gomez, 51, said he "felt alone" as he watched the agents laughing as they walked away after looking at his green card (alien registration card) and returning his press credentials. His colleagues were watching, and "I was angry and tears were coming into my eyes," he testified.
A week later, Gomez and his 12-year-old son were driving in Glendale, where they live, and saw an INS roundup of illegal aliens in progress. Gomez followed one of the vans to another location and witnessed the chase and arrest of a young man on a bicycle, according to testimony.
When Gomez approached to photograph the incident, he was confronted by agents who took his camera and demanded to see his green card. He testified that one of the agents was Martin, who told him, "I know you. I have a file on you." He said he was told there was a law prohibiting taking pictures of agents.
The defense claimed in papers filed with the court that Gomez became verbally abusive and shoved his camera into the agents' faces during both incidents. Gomez denied these assertions in court.
Eleven days later Gomez and his publisher went to then-U.S. Atty. Andrea Ordin to complain of the treatment and were told the matter would be investigated.
The next morning La Opinion carried a headline announcing an investigation into INS tactics. On the same day, agents sweeping through an alley near the newspaper arrested two illegal aliens just outside the offices at 1436 S. Main St.
O'Neil argued in court that the incident was sheer coincidence, that the agents did not even know where the La Opinion office was.
'Pattern of Interfering'
Nevertheless, Pfaelzer concluded that evidence presented during trial showed "a pattern of interfering with the taking of pictures. . . . That is an important constitutional right."
She awarded Gomez $175,000 in compensatory damages, breaking the amount down to $75,000 each against Martin and the INS and $25,000 against agent Trevor Avenetti, plus punitive damages of $15,000 against Martin and $5,000 against Avenetti.
To La Opinion she awarded compensatory damages of $75,000 against Martin and $25,000 against Avenetti plus injunctive relief, the terms of which were to be worked out.
Lawyers explained outside court that the government is responsible for payment of compensatory damages but that the individual agents are held responsible for punitive damages assessed against them.