Three thousand four hundred and fifty-one days after being dragged out of his vehicle & arrested at an illegal roadblock conducted by Tohono O’odham tribal police (with the assistance of U.S. Customs agents and the U.S. Border Patrol), Terry Bressi settled his lawsuit. He received a $210,000 check.
From the moment he filed his suit, he fought for exactly 3,087 days — all the while driving in the same area and becoming a target of enforcer rage. It wasn’t a complete victory. No individual officer paid a penalty. No principle of law was changed. Nevertheless, he won.
In doing so, he also posted a treasure-trove of documents to help others who might want to push the right-to-travel fight even farther.
As a born Ghost, somebody who just wants to go around “the system” rather than contend with it, I can’t even imagine fighting such a fight. But then, that’s what Agitators are for, and if there’s ever an Agitator Hall of Fame, surely Terry Bressi has earned his place in it.
He was kind enough to answer a few questions about what motivated him. Q&A follows. (He also gave some more practical information about his setup for recording police stops; that will be in another blog post.)
Q. Did you realize right after the initial incident that you were going to fight back, or did it take you some time to work up to it?
A. I knew immediately that not only would I do what was necessary to vigorously defend myself against the charges but that I would use an acquittal as a spring board into a civil rights lawsuit. To that end, I wrote up a rough draft of my initial report within a few days of the incident while everything was still fresh in my mind. I also immediately began looking for a good attorney to represent me regarding the charges along with providing council on how best to prepare for a lawsuit upon successfully defending against the charges.
Q. Did you consider other options besides pursuing the issue in the courts?
A. I decided early on that not only would I pursue the issue in a court of law but also the court of public opinion. To that end, I used the incident in particular and the issue in general as a motivator to create a website, CheckpointUSA.org and blog, Roadblock Revelations. These online resources could then be used as a discussion platform for issues related to the right to travel and the abuses that always seem to manifest themselves after men and women with guns and shiny badges are empowered to seize people absent suspicion and investigate/interrogate them regarding unknown crimes.
I also wanted to use my website as a comprehensive legal document repository for my interaction with the ‘justice’ system. One of my frustrations over the years while reading about other people’s cases and researching associated legal issues has been the lack of documentation regarding specific cases or documentation that only told part of the story.
In all legal proceedings, there are three sides to every story; the plaintiff’s, the defendant’s and the court’s. Usually what we hear in the media or see online is the court’s side via a court order. A court order in turn is little more than the position the presiding judge takes after filtering the evidence, facts and pleadings made by the other two sides through the judge’s particular bias filter. As such, when a person only has a court ruling to review, and not the complete court record, it’s difficult to determine the merit of one’s own legal position on a related legal issue. It also makes it difficult to strategically plan a legal action if one doesn’t know how an issue has been argued before, how the other side responded, what conclusion the court came to and how far any particular disagreement was appealed, if at all.
This is the primary reason why I decided early on that, in the absence of an explicit court order to the contrary I would post all the legal documentation associated with the case online, a stance that caused problems on several occasions over the nine year history of the case. As such, the 240+ legal documents I have posted provides a treasure trove of information for others who want to push this issue further. Folks can see exactly how the issues were argued, what evidence was brought to bear, how the other side responded and how the court treated each argument. Such information is invaluable for anyone who wants to challenge suspicionless roadblock operations in future legal actions because it allows others to capitalize not only on our legal successes but also our legal mistakes.
Q. Were you motivated more by a desire to right the wrong done to you? Or more by sheer principle? Or was it a mix?
A. For me, the individual wrong was merely the offshoot of the violation of the principle. If I wasn’t concerned about the principle, if I didn’t have the principle to help guide my response to begin with, I wouldn’t have been motivated to question the officers who stopped me and would have shown a government issued ID after the first ‘request’ to do so.
The principle enshrined within the Right to Travel is fundamental. Without it, most of the other rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights have little to no meaning. What good is the right to speech, press, assembly or petition if you can’t travel somewhere to speak to a group of like-minded individuals, distribute media, assemble regarding an issue of common concern or stand in front of the government official(s) you’re trying to petition? What good is a right to keep and bear arms if the only place you can keep or bear them is within the boundaries of your home? How will you exercise your right to face your accuser if you aren’t allowed to travel to or enter the court house where you’re being accused? How will you pursue your life, liberty or happiness if the substance of your life, liberty or happiness lies outside the boundaries of your property line?
The principle, Right to Travel, was interfered with the moment I was seized by armed government agents along a public highway no where near an international border while admitting they had no reason to believe I had done anything wrong in order to investigate me for crimes they had no reason to suspect me of violating. Everything that transpired from that point on was merely the result of my response to that violation of an individual’s right to travel unmolested along roads paid for by a public whose name ‘the government’ purports to exist for and operate in the service of.
Q. During the nine years you pursued this, what kept you going? Surely you must have just wanted to quit sometimes.
A. In a nutshell, I can be quite persistent when I know I’m right.
There’s a host of reasons why I pushed the case as far as I did. Some practical, some not so practical. A few of those reasons appear below. I’ll also point out that my ability to keep going over the years on this issue was due in no small part to the support of friends, family and people I had never even met before the case was filed.
On the practical side of things, every time I had to drive to work along that deserted stretch of Southwestern desert highway where the number of enforcement vehicles on the road at any given time outnumbered most other traffic was a constant reminder that it’s generally not a good idea to start a fight you can’t finish – especially when the King’s men are involved.
By standing up for my rights during the initial roadblock incident in 2002, I quickly went from being a random driver in the area to a target. This became even more the case after the Border Patrol established a strong presence along SR86 with its ‘High Intensity Enforcement Zone’ in 2003 and eventually a so-called ‘tactical’ roadblock in 2008 that’s still there to this day (see my YouTube videos).
A target that can’t demonstrate an ability to not only defend itself against unwanted aggression but also inflict some damage of its own from time to time quickly becomes a casualty in one form or another. As such, successfully defending oneself against trumped up charges and following up with a largely successful, albeit lengthy, civil rights lawsuit was just as much a matter of survival as anything else.
On the not-so-practical side of things, a lot changed for me personally over the nine years I was involved in the lawsuit. I went from being primarily responsible for my own well-being at the time of the incident to being responsible for several others as the size of my immediate family grew over the years, a responsibility I took on willingly. Not wanting my children to grow up in a society where they can be arbitrarily seized, detained, questioned, investigated, searched & assaulted by random government agents merely for traveling down a public road, was a great motivator for me to do what I can about it now. For purposes of this case, that involved seeing the case through by seeking the best outcome I could get given what I had to work with.
Q. Now that it’s over and you’ve had some time to reflect, what are your thoughts & feelings about the outcome?
A. In many ways, the legal outcome was not what I wanted but it was more than I expected. After all, any legal action involving the King’s men that you can walk away from is a good one. Additionally, nine years of legal wrangling in justice court, federal district court and the 9th circuit has provided a treasure trove of experience and information that others can use without having to recreate the wheel regarding similar legal challenges.
Legally, we made a few tactical mistakes along the way. Mistakes that shouldn’t have made a difference in the outcome but did. We also did a lot of things right but learned the hard way that when it’s your word and the word of other witnesses against the word of the King’s men, the King’s men almost always get the benefit of the doubt in the King’s court. That’s why audio and video of every interaction with a government agent who is forcing himself on you is so important.
My purpose in filing the lawsuit was to establish legal precedent regarding what actions enforcement agents can/can’t take while seizing people absent suspicion at police checkpoints. I also wanted reasonable compensation for the thousands of dollars the incident initially cost me in legal defense fees and other costs. What I got nine years later was a purely monetary settlement after the courts whittled the lawsuit away to a few basic, out of context, facts that would be difficult to present in any meaningful way to a jury.
By whittling away at the substance of the lawsuit before a jury ever got close to hearing it, the court was also pushing us towards settlement due to several factors that I didn’t fully understand until I was standing right in the middle of them. Specifically, judicial precedent over the past decade has had the effect, intended or not, of undermining the right to sue for constitutional torts under 42 USC 1983. Specifically, courts are increasingly instructing jurers to only assign nominal damages of $1.00 to plaintiffs who prevail in a 42 USC 1983 action for constitutional violations that don’t involve substantial physical or financial harm.
The justice system’s rationale is that from it’s perspective there is no monetary value in a constitutional right in and of itself so significant monetary damages for a constitutional violation shouldn’t be awarded to someone who can’t prove any other substantial harm associated with the violation. To add further insult to injury, court’s are increasingly limiting or denying attorney’s fees to civil rights attorneys who prevail on 42 USC 1983 claims but only win nominal damages for their clients.
This of course creates the perverse incentive that individuals who want to realize change to unconstitutional government policies, procedures and practices through non-violent legal action must stand their ground to such a degree during an incident that they place themselves in significant jeapardy of physical or financial harm before it’s realistically feasible to bring suit under 42 USC 1983.
What civil rights attorney, after all, is going to take a case pro-bono knowing that the chances of recouping his or her costs after a lengthy legal battle will be slim to none – even if the case is successful?
What individual, who isn’t independently wealthy, is going to pay an attorney to bring a 42 USC 1983 claim forward knowing there’s a significant chance that even if they do win, the court will only award nominal damages?
What government agency is going to be persuaded to change its ways when the only liability it faces for the wholesale disregard of individual rights is $1.00 in nominal damages?
While this wasn’t exactly the situation we were facing here, we weren’t very far removed from it either – especially after the most recent judge in the case denied several of our claims while leaving the core constitutional claims intact. We could have appealed the denial but we wouldn’t have been able to do so until after the trial. Additionally, another appeal would have added several more years to the case and all the costs and aggravation that goes along with it.
As such, I had a front row seat to just how badly the judicial system wants settlement over trial and just how little respect the system as a whole has for the fundamental individual rights it was allegedly created to protect.
Do I think the nine year effort was worthwhile? Most definitely but probably not for all the same reasons many other people would.