A Black pastor who was arrested by Alabama police while he was watering his neighbor's flowers filed a federal lawsuit Friday against the city and three of its officers.
Michael Jennings, a longtime pastor at Vision of Abundant Life Church in Sylacauga, Alabama, was detained on May 22 by Childersburg officers responding to a 911 call about a suspicious person.
Jennings was charged with obstructing government operations after police accused him of failing to respond to their request that he provide identification. The charges were dropped in June.
He said in a lawsuit filed in the Northern District of Alabama that his arrest was "unlawful" and violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The suit names officers Christopher Smith, Justin Gable and Jeremy Brooks as defendants, along with the City of Childersburg.
Jennings said at a news conference Saturday that he felt the officer "already figured I was guilty by the way he questioned me and the way he talked to me."
"One thing I want to make crystal clear, I’m not anti-police. We need the police. Without the police, we’ll have full chaos. But there’s bad police, there’s good police," he said. "But what they did that day, they did with impunity, figuring there would be no action taken against them. I felt dehumanized."
The ordeal began when Jennings' neighbor, a white woman, called 911 to report a suspicious person, the lawsuit said.
In a video released last month, Jennings was outside a home watering flowers when Officer Smith approached him and asked Jennings what he was doing.
"Watering flowers," the pastor responded as he pointed a watering hose at the shrubbery. Jennings went on to explain that his neighbor asked him to water the flowers while the neighbor was out of town.
"I’m supposed to be here. I’m Pastor Jennings. I live across the street," he said, according to the video. "I’m looking out for the house while they gone."
Jennings relayed the same information to Officer Gable when he arrived on the scene, according to the lawsuit.
Officer Smith asked Jennings to provide an identification card, the video showed, but Jennings refused and said he had not done anything wrong.
As he walked away to continue watering the flowers, officers Gable and Smith placed him in handcuffs, according to the lawsuit. It accused Brooks, the last officer to arrive on the scene, of telling Jennings that he needed to listen to police and "shut his mouth."
The woman who called police tried to defuse the situation by apologizing to Jennings and telling police that she does know him from the neighborhood. Jennings' wife also arrived on the scene and showed police her husband's identification card, the video showed.
Despite this, the officers "refused to release Pastor Jennings from their custody and took him to the Childersburg City Jail and then he was booked and transported to the Talladega County Jail," the lawsuit said.
Jennings was fingerprinted, had his mug shot taken and was booked into the county jail before his wife bailed him out, according to the lawsuit.
Under Alabama law, an officer "may stop any person abroad in a public place" if they suspect that person is committing, has committed or is about to commit a crime. Attorneys for Jennings previously said their client did not have to provide identification "because he was not in a public place."
The police department and the City of Childersburg did not respond to phone calls and emails Saturday requesting comment about Jennings' arrest or the lawsuit. Efforts to reach the three officers by phone Saturday were not successful.