UCI Law Press Freedom Project wins a $90,000 Settlement for Photojournalist to Settle First Amendment Lawsuit


IRVINE, Calif. (Sept. 26, 2022) — The University of California, Irvine School of Law (UCI Law) announced that its Press Freedom Project won a $90,000 settlement from the county of Los Angeles for Long Beach photojournalist Pablo Unzueta. The Press Freedom Project helped sue the County and Sheriff Villanueva for violation of First Amendment Rights after deputies falsely arrested Unzueta near a protest, took his camera, cellphone and searched him.

Unzueta claimed that deputies violated his First Amendment right and various state and federal laws by wrongfully arresting and jailing him, confiscating his iPhone and Nikon camera for several weeks, using an illegal search warrant to search his devices, and returning his camera without its memory card.

The Los Angeles County Board of Claims voted to approve the settlement during its meeting Monday, September 19, 2022.

“Sheriff Villanueva and his deputies have a history of brutal arrests and public threats against journalists who are exercising their First Amendment rights to document deputy brutality,” said Adjunct Professor Susan E. Seager, counsel for Unzueta and head of the Press Freedom Project. “Deputies should not be arresting, jailing and strip-searching journalists, taking away their camera and cell phones, and using illegal search warrants to search their devices, as deputies did with Pablo.”

Prosecutors rejected the sheriff's department's recommendation to file misdemeanor failure-to-disperse charges against Unzueta and 16 other people who were arrested that night and deputies were required by California law to change their records to show the 17 were “detained,” not arrested, Seager said.

“It’s already difficult being a student photojournalist and fighting for your voice within the margins of the journalism industry and being deliberately targeted by the police gave me no choice but to stand up for myself,” Unzueta said. “My case is not isolated. Attacks against the press are far too common, unfortunately.”

A video by bicycle-riding street videographer Hugo Padilla shows deputies chasing a crowd down the street after deputies gave their order to disperse. Like Unzueta, Padilla was arrested six blocks from the dispersed protest in the middle of a dark, empty road.

Seager said that the Sheriff’s Department bragged to her that it had filmed its own videos that night to show they did "everything right," but refused to release those videos to the public.

Unzueta was an editor for his school newspaper at Cal State Long Beach when he was arrested. He is now a freelancer who has published photographs in The Washington Post, Harper’s Magazine, High Country News, Grist, The Guardian and CalMatters.

Unzueta’s lawsuit alleged that the deputies violated the California Bane Act, which bars anyone from using threats, intimidation, or coercion to interfere with any person’s constitutional rights, and the California Shield Law, which gives journalists the right to refuse to give law enforcement access to their unpublished materials.

Padilla and a few others who were arrested that night filed a separate civil rights lawsuit against the county and sheriff, which is pending.

After deputies arrested Unzueta and took away his camera and cellphone, they threw him into a truck filled with pepper spray, cuffed his hands so tightly he lost feeling in his hands for months, jailed him overnight in the notorious downtown Twin Towers jail complex, repeatedly strip-searched him, and refused to return his cellphone or Nikon camera for weeks, according to the lawsuit. The Sheriff denied any wrongdoing and did not admit liability.

About the University of California, Irvine School of Law

The University of California, Irvine School of Law is a top, visionary law school that provides an innovative and comprehensive curriculum, prioritizes public service, and demonstrates a commitment to diversity within the legal profession. UCI Law students have completed more than 135,000 hours of pro bono work since 2009. Forty-eight percent of UCI Law’s J.D. graduates are people of color. At UCI Law, we are driven to improve our local, national, and global communities by grappling with critical issues as scholars, as practitioners, and as teachers who are preparing the next generation of leaders. The collaborative and interdisciplinary community at UCI Law includes extraordinary students, world-renowned faculty, dedicated staff, engaged alumni and enthusiastic supporters. More information on UCI Law is available here. Please follow us on Twitter @UCILaw, Instagram @ucilaw and Facebook @UCIrvineLaw.