FORMER journalist Akile Simon will receive $150,000 from the State, which settled his malicious prosecution lawsuit arising from his arrest in 2018 for obstruction while filming a crime scene in Cocorite.
On Tuesday, a trial was held for the assessment of damages after the State accepted liability for malicious prosecution and wrongful arrest.
The matter was expected to go to trial. But in light of the State’s position, the presiding judge, Justice Frank Seepersad, approved the consent agreement and ordered the State to pay general, aggravated and exemplary damages, which also attract interest, as well as Simon’s costs, after hearing submissions from both sides.
Seepersad said it was always heartening when the State did the right thing. “The evidence before the court strongly suggested the arrest and prosecution should not have taken place.”
In his oral decision on compensation, Seepersad said there appeared to be an aversion to accountability and transparency by agents of the State.
Seepersad said Simon was a media worker, known by a senior officer on the scene, in a public space, discharging a public function.
“The evidence suggests he was not interfering with the police.” The judge said what was striking to the court was the appearance of an “almost irrational fear” among the police when it came to people recording them while on duty.
“That having been said, just as the TTPS plays an important role in society, so does the media.” He said the media’s role in a functional democracy was to accurately publish unbiased information to educate the public to make informed decisions, and hold public authorities to account.
He said the police’s actions were unfortunate as they had the effect of thwarting Simon’s professional obligation as a media worker to capture a crime scene which would have redounded to the benefit of the public.
“There was no rational view for the officers to form the view he was loitering, and nothing on the evidence suggests he obstructed them. The action adopted by the police was not only ill-advised and reckless, but struck at the core of the democratic principle of press freedom. “This court will not tolerate the arbitrary interference of the ability of the media to discharge its function.”
In his lawsuit, Simon said on August 19, 2018, while on duty as a cameraman and reporter for Crime Watch Studios, he was at the scene of a shooting at Upper Cocorite Terrace, where an off-duty officer had shot a resident.
PC Ian Charles and SRP Phillips were the two officers who interacted with him.
Simon said he was some distance away and was recording his footage when Charles approached, asking who he was and for his identification.
Simon said he told Charles being an officer in uniform was not a legitimate reason to oblige him to identify himself.
Simon’s lawsuit said he was repeatedly told he was behaving in a suspicious manner and obstructing a police investigation. It also alleged he was subjected to a search, slammed into a parked car and told he would be arrested for loitering.
Simon said he interacted with a senior officer who recognised him and told him the two officers, Charles and Phillips, were unlawfully demanding that he identify himself. He also said Charles threatened that any time he saw him at a crime scene, he would be locked up.
The Director of Public Prosecutions eventually discontinued the obstruction charge against Simon in the magistrates’ court. Simon was told that DPP Roger Gaspard, SC, reviewed the case and was of the opinion that the evidence did not support a case for obstruction. A notice of discontinuance was filed in the magistrates' court on January 22, 2019, and the presiding magistrate discharged Simon.
In 2021, the police’s legal unit told Simon the DPP had given instructions to charge one of the officers. He also exhibited a video recording of the incident in Cocorite in support of his claim.
In his lawsuit, Simon asserted his innocence as well as his right to record the crime scene and said he was troubled that he was told he would be charged with loitering, but was met with one for obstruction.
Although the State conceded, it earlier defended the officers’ actions, saying they had reasonable cause to arrest Simon. The State denied Simon was illegally detained, unlawfully arrested or maliciously prosecuted. It said he did not comply with the officers’ order to remove himself from the crime scene.
The two officers involved gave witness statements of their version of the events, as well as senior officers who were also there.
In submissions at the trial, the State’s attorney Ronelle Hinds said consideration was made of the hours of detention, the conditions of the cells where Simon was kept at the police station, and his having to go to court.
She also said it was not the first time Simon had been arrested, as a simple Google search would show that.
Simon’s attorney Abdel Mohammed said there were distinct features in this case which warranted an uplift for aggravated and exemplary damages.
He said Simon should not have been arrested and a video from his camera which recorded the event clearly showed a version of events totally opposed to what the State and the officers contended.
“The claimant was just exercising his job as a cameraman.” Mohammed said it was a calculated attempt to target Simon and embarrass him for standing his ground and he was "made to pay by being arrested for an offence he never committed.”
Simon said he was strip-searched twice and kept in filthy cells during his detention and court appearance, which the judge took note of, as well as the media coverage it generated.
The State was also represented by Kendra Mark Gordon.