Patrick Thompson and Martel Miller Arrive At Settlement on Eavesdropping Charges

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Thompson and Martel Miller arrived at a
settlement in a civil suit against local
authorities claiming their civil rights had
been violated when eavesdropping
charges were leveled against them in
2004 for videotaping the police.
In June 2005, Thompson and Miller filed a federal lawsuit
in the U.S. District Court against Champaign, Urbana,
and Champaign County. The complaint contained three
major components: 1) Patrick Thompson had been racially
profiled by Champaign police in three traffic stops in
late 2003. 2) Martel Miller had his Fourth Amendment
rights violated when Champaign police illegally seized his
videotape and equipment. 3) Assistant State’s Attorney
Elizabeth Dobson had maliciously prosecuted Miller and
Thompson on charges of felony eavesdropping.
Those named in the original suit included Champaign
City Manager Steve Carter, Champaign Police Chief R.T.
Finney, Deputy Chiefs John Murphy and Troy Daniels, Sgt.
David Griffet, Officer Justus Clinton, State’s Attorney John
Piland, and Assistant State’s Attorney Elizabeth Dobson.
In a series of events that led up to the eavesdropping
charges, there were several questionable traffic stops.
Thompson was stopped by Champaign Police in October
2003 for an alleged seat belt violation. In December 2003,
Thompson was sitting in his car in a parking lot waiting to
merge into traffic when Champaign Sgt. David Griffet
approached him and asked what was in the cup he was
drinking from, apparently suspecting it was alcohol. Thompson
answered that he was drinking tea. Although he was
allowed to go, Thompson says he was followed by several
police cars and later stopped by one of them. He was given a
warning ticket for having a license plate light out, an illegitimate
claim according to Thompson. He entered a formal
complaint for what he said was a case of racial profiling.
In January 9, 2004, a meeting took place between City
Manager Steve Carter, several members of the Champaign
police command staff, Patrick Thompson, and John Lee
Johnson, then still alive. Despite Johnson’s support of
Thompson, the complaint was dismissed. In a letter dated
February 5, 2004, Steve Carter wrote:
”After reviewing the information from our meeting and the
police reports, and after conferring with the City Attorney with
regard to the legal arguments made by Mr. Johnson, it is my
decision to uphold the decisions of the Chief. As to whether the
stops were racially motivated, I do not feel that there were facts
presented to support this allegation […] Finally, neither the fact
that you were not ticketed for the alleged seat belt violation nor
that you were issued a warning ticket for the equipment violation
seems to indicate racial bias.”
Exhausting the complaint process, Thompson took
direction action, teaming up with long-time friend Martel
Miller to videotape police encounters with African Americans.
After notifying authorities of their intentions in a letter
dated March 26, 2004, Thompson and Miller hit the streets
collecting video footage. As early as June 2004, Champaign
police moved to shut them down. Indeed, Thompson captured
video images of Assistant State’s Attorney Elizabeth
Dobson watching him with her own video camera.
On August 7, 2004, Champaign police seized Martel
Miller’s camera and tape without arresting him and without
a warrant. On August 10, the State’s Attorney filed
charges against Miller, but Judge Heidi Ladd refused to
agree to a warrant and instead issued a summons for him
to appear in court. On August 23, Miller was formally
indicted on two counts of felony eavesdropping, an dated
law that was never enforced—that is, not until two black
activists started videotaping police. The following day,
August 24, Thompson was arrested on charges of home
invasion and sexual abuse, and held on an exorbitant
$250,000 bond. On September 2, 2004, Thompson was
charged for the first time with eavesdropping and Miller
was hit with a third charge.
State’s Attorney John Piland told the News-Gazette
(Oct. 17, 2004) that the eavesdropping charges were filed
at the request of the Champaign Police Department’s command
staff. The police, he said, wanted the charges kept
against Thompson and Miller to bring them to the table
for a conversation.
City Manager Steve Carter refuted Piland, saying “R.T.
was consistent from early on that we were interested in
having the charges dropped.” Chief Finney stuck to this
script, telling me in 2007 that he knew nothing about plot
to charge Thompson and Miller, and that if he had known
he would have put a stop to it.
An affidavit from Elizabeth Dobson refutes Finney’s
claim. According to Dobson, on August 9, 2004, she met
with command staff at the Champaign Police Station to
discuss charges against Thompson and Miller. Dobson
states that Chief Finney’s concern was that Champaign
“not be the first or only police agency alleged as the victim
of the Eavesdropping offense.” Chief Finney, Dobson
claims, wanted the University of Illinois Police Department
to go along with the charges. After UIPD refused to
participate, the prosecution still went forward.
In the following weeks there were several public
screenings of Citizen’s Watch, the video produced from
Thompson and Miller’s footage, and editorials in the
News-Gazette criticizing Piland’s handling of the case. The
phony eavesdropping charges turned out to be a great
embarrassment for local authorities. Piland eventually
dropped the charges against Miller, and after a new State’s
Attorney was elected in November 2004, eavesdropping
charges against Thompson were also dismissed.
The federal suit filed by Thompson and Miller managed
to withstand challenges by an army of city, county, and private
attorneys. Yet despite the egregiousness of their
actions, legal immunity still protected many of the public
officials. The suit originally asked for more than a million
dollars in compensation, but in the end the settlement was
far below that figure. Although there was not a confidentiality
agreement, Thompson and Miller asked that the
dollar amount not be made public.
A settlement in this case indicates that local authorities
were unwilling to take the stand to defend their actions in
2004. The full extent of their conspiracy to send Patrick
Thompson and Martel Miller to prison will remain unknown.

About Brian Dolinar

Brian Dolinar has been a community journalist since 2004.
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