Reid Collins Helps Score Verdict For Teen In La. Policing Case

By Alison Knezevich | May 17, 2024, 7:03 PM EDT ·

group of attorneys posing outside of federal building with clients

The Reid Collins trial team is pictured with plaintiffs De'Shaun Johnson and Teliah Perkins outside the Hale Boggs Federal Building-Courthouse in New Orleans. Pictured are Reid Collins attorneys Ryan Goldstein (from left), Emma Culotta and Sean Johnson; plaintiffs Johnson and Perkins; attorney Keith Cohan; and senior litigation paralegal Tina Stone. (Courtesy of Reid Collins)

Nearly four years to the day when Louisiana teenager De'Shaun Johnson recorded his mother's arrest in their Slidell driveway, a jury awarded him civil damages after agreeing this month that a local sheriff's deputy who threatened to use a Taser on him had intentionally inflicted emotional distress.

Represented pro bono by Reid Collins & Tsai LLP in partnership with the ACLU of Louisiana, Johnson secured a $185,0000 award after a three-day trial. The verdict represented the first jury trial win for the state ACLU's Justice Lab, an initiative that partners with national law firms and is aimed at challenging racially discriminatory policing practices.

Austin, Texas-based Reid Collins partners Keith Y. Cohan and Ryan M. Goldstein, who both typically handle complex commercial litigation, were involved with the case from the early stages, including working on the investigation and the federal complaint, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana in 2021.

Cohan told Law360 that the jury's award represented accountability for police officials, and also justice for Johnson.

"The money is life-changing for him, but the validation to have a jury of eight stand up and unanimously say that this isn't right, and award him $185,000, is extremely meaningful," he said.

Goldstein told Law360 that he had been looking for pro bono opportunities around the time that the Justice Lab launched in the wake of George Floyd's murder in Minneapolis in 2020. He had known the ACLU of Louisiana's legal director, Nora Ahmed, since the early days of his career, when they both worked at Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison LLP.

"It seemed like a perfect opportunity, in light of what was going on in the world, to get involved," Goldstein said.

Johnson's mother, Teliah C. Perkins, who is Black, filed the lawsuit a year after her arrest. According to the complaint, St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Sgt. Kyle Hart and Deputy Ryan Moring, who are white, went to the family's home on the afternoon of May 5, 2020, after police said they had received an anonymous call of a woman riding a motorcycle without a helmet.

They asked Perkins for her driver's license, registration and proof of insurance. The lawsuit, which called the allegations against her baseless, claimed that the deputies needlessly escalated the situation after Perkins told them about previous police visits regarding someone riding without a helmet, and asked them whether those reports had been racially motivated.

Video in the case shows the deputies pinning Perkins to the ground as they arrest her.

As Johnson, who was 14 at the time, recorded the incident on his phone, Moring got in front of him to block the camera, shoved him in the chest and aimed his Taser at the boy, according to the lawsuit.

"You can't tase a child," Johnson said in the video, which was evidence in the case.

Moring responded, "Watch me."

Perkins spent the night in jail and was charged with resisting a police officer, battery of a police officer, driving a motorcycle with no proof of insurance and driving a motorcycle with no safety helmet. All charges except resisting arrest were later dropped.

In the federal complaint, Perkins also accused the deputies of using excessive force. Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit rejected those claims, but allowed a First Amendment claim on behalf of her son to proceed. The court held that a reasonable jury could find that the teenager's speech in recording his mother's arrest "was chilled," and that Moring's actions were "substantially motivated" against the boy's exercise of his First Amendment right.

The jury found on May 1 that Moring's actions amounted to intentional infliction of emotional distress, but it sided with the deputy on the First Amendment claim.

The 2020 incident "really turned De'Shaun's life upside down," Cohan told Law360, saying that the teen has suffered from PTSD, sleepless nights and fear of police.

Johnson, now a high school student set to attend Alabama State University, wasn't available for an interview, but in a statement provided by his attorneys, he said, "This win means so much to my mother, my grandmother, my cousin and myself."

"After all these years to finally see justice served brings me peace and joy. I was in eighth grade when this happened to me," he said. "Now, I'm about to attend college. I'm proud of myself and my mom for refusing to accept what happened to us and for fighting for the justice we are owed."

For Johnson's legal team, Cohan said the challenges began with ensuring that they filed suit within Louisiana's one-year statute of limitations for federal civil rights claims. And in taking the case to trial, he said, the lawyers had to contend with a conservative jury pool.

"You have a case where the defendant is law enforcement, wearing his uniform throughout trial," Cohan said. "And you have a defense based in officer safety, and how this was crucial to protect the officers. So we really had to show that De'Shaun was not a credible threat. He didn't try to hinder his mom's arrest; he didn't try to interfere. He was barefoot. He was doing exactly what we should all preach, which is to record the incident and to do so peacefully, but to stand your ground and understand your rights while doing so."

At trial, jurors heard from witnesses including the mother and son, Johnson's cousin — who also recorded the arrest — the deputies and policing experts.

The jury took about four hours to return its verdict.

Ahmed of the ACLU called the jurors' decision "a resounding, incredible victory," saying, "It shows that the people recognize that the emotional harm that police can cause, by virtue of their power … is extraordinary.

"It is very difficult, I believe, for a lot of families who live in privileged communities, a lot of white families, to think about what would it be like if a police officer pulled a Taser on your 14-year-old-child for doing nothing more than videotaping an incident," she said.

The Justice Lab partners with legal clinics and law firms to bring cases in Louisiana involving allegations of racially motivated stops and seizures under the Fourth and 14th amendments.

Policing lawsuits involving non-physical injuries typically result in minimal payouts, making them not economically viable for local civil rights attorneys given the expense of investigating and litigating them, Ahmed said.

These financial constraints are why pro bono efforts are so crucial, she said.

The Justice Lab is partnering with large law firms that "understand that these cases are uneconomical to bring, and who understand that, if they do not bring them, no one will," Ahmed said.

Since 2020, the Justice Lab has secured more than $500,000 in awards for plaintiffs, according to the ACLU of Louisiana.

Asked for comment on the jury decision, both the sheriff's office and counsel for Moring provided Law360 with a statement calling the emotional distress claim "meritless."

"With this verdict, all of the constitutional violations alleged by Mr. Johnson and Ms. Perkins have been rejected, and the court has determined that Deputy Moring and Sergeant Hart acted in accordance with the law," they said.

Ahmed said the case raised questions about the "broader landscape" of policing in America.

"This is a case that started out because someone called the police and accused Mr. Johnson's mother of riding a motorcycle without a helmet, which amounts to nothing more than a $50 fine," she said.

–-Additional reporting by Marco Poggio. Editing by Karin Roberts.

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