The Pulse

Graham police, Alamance Sheriff’s Office face potential class action suit over pepper spray incident

By: - July 7, 2021 2:00 pm
Law enforcement officers deployed pepper spray to help force protesters off the Historic Courthouse Square where a Confederate statute stands. Photo: Anthony Crider, licensed under Creative Commons

Activist Jamie Paulen filed a complaint in Orange County Superior Court Monday seeking a monetary recovery as a result of law enforcement’s use of force on “March to the Polls” protesters in Alamance County on Oct. 31 of last year. In the complaint, Paulen demands the Graham Police Department and Alamance County Sheriff’s Office compensate for her physical pain and severe emotional distress that she suffered after being exposed to of pepper spray and physical violence. She claims the damages are in excess of 25,000.

Paulen told Policy Watch that she was directly pepper-sprayed three times, including one incident when she was leaving the event as police forced protesters off the Historic Courthouse square. Law enforcement later characterized the demonstration as an unlawful gathering without a valid permit.

Paulen said many protesters experienced the same improper treatment and asked the judge to certify the case as a class action suit. A judge will decide whether to grant the request after, among other things, examining her fitness to represent the class.

Jamie Paulen claimed to be pepper-sprayed three times on Oct 31, Photo: Anthony Crider, licensed under Creative Commons

The city of Graham and Alamance County settled a federal lawsuit with a few protesters represented by civil rights groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Plaintiffs claimed that Graham police officers and Alamance deputy sheriffs violated their civil rights, including obstructing them from voting.

“If you were in violations of people’s constitutional rights which you’ve admitted and people have been harmed, then you need to compensate everybody in the class, not just a handful of people who’ve been cherry picked by civil rights attorneys,” Paulen told Policy Watch.

Paulen, herself a lawyer, also represents a handful of plaintiffs who were criminally charged with offenses such as disorderly conduct, resisting police or incitement to riot, in the aftermath of a series of protests last year that took place in response to George Floyd’s murder by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

“My idea is my litigation should capture everybody who was there, if you were there and you weren’t pepper-sprayed, but you watched your best friend’s kids take it in the face, and you’ve had nightmares and you had to have treatment, and you’ve had to talk to your therapist about it, potentially you have the claim and you might recover something,” Paulen said.

Paulen also seeks the release of body camera footage of officers.

Alamance County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment. The Graham Police Department did not return Policy Watch’s inquiry seeking comments as of this writing.

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Yanqi Xu

Yanqi Xu, Courts, Law and Democracy Reporter, came to Policy Watch in December of 2020 from the Investigative Reporting Workshop in D.C., where she combined data and reporting to cover public accountability issues. Yanqi graduated with a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri in 2019. Her multimedia work appeared in PolitiFact and the Columbia Missourian, and was featured on the local NPR and NBC affiliates. Originally from China, Yanqi started her career producing newscasts to tell people what’s going on around the world.