Woman Plans Equal Protection Lawsuit If No Resolution With Berlin

BERLIN – The local woman threatened with arrest for sitting on a picnic table at Henry Park is now seeking relief through the legal system.

Ronshell Shockley, the woman confronted by a police officer for not sitting correctly at a picnic table, plans to file a $75,000 lawsuit if she and the Town of Berlin don’t come to a resolution by Jan. 15. According to Luke Rommel, her attorney, if the matter is not resolved by then he’ll file an equal protection claim in federal court.

“Initially, we were hoping for a simple apology,” Rommel said. “That never happened.  At this point, there would be a small monetary component required to resolve the dispute.  The money would be mainly symbolic; no one has any intention of ‘getting rich’ off this case, but we feel there should be a deterrent component to this so it does not happen again.”

On June 30, Shockley and her husband were at Henry Park watching their son’s basketball game. She was sitting on top of a picnic table when she was approached by Lt. Jeffrey Lawson of the Berlin Police Department. He told her she was sitting on the bench wrong and when her husband questioned the officer’s behavior, they were told to leave.

“He said ‘leave or you’re going to be arrested,’’’ Shockley told The Dispatch last month.

Shockley said it took several attempts before she was successfully able to file a complaint regarding the officer’s behavior. She waited months before she received a report of the investigation from Police Chief Arnold Downing in October. In a letter he advised her that a violation of police department policy had occurred and that action had been taken.

“The Berlin Police Department has taken corrective action with the officer involved and will be reviewing the compliant [sic] process in an effort to improve the manner in which complaints are taken and conducted,” the letter read.

Shockley said in spite of the acknowledgment she was still frustrated with the process and the town’s response. She believes she only received the correspondence from Downing because of the interest generated in the incident following a WBAL TV report.

Rommel advised Berlin Mayor Gee Williams of Shockley’s pending equal protection complaint in a Nov. 21 letter.

“This entire incident, from start to finish, was objectively mishandled,” he wrote. “I am persuaded that if WBAL television had not reported on the incident, it would have been effectively ignored. No one has ever apologized to Ms. Shockley. Likewise, no one has ever informed Ms. Shockley if any remedial action whatsoever has been taken as a result of Lt. Lawson’s conduct. No one should be treated in this manner, and the Town of Berlin should know it by now.”

The letter to the mayor included a draft copy of Shockley’s complaint and advised him that it would be filed in U.S. District Court on Jan. 15, 2017 unless the town was interested in resolving the matter. The potential lawsuit seeks $75,000 in damages.

According to Rommel, equal protection is a constitutional principle that ensures that government treats everyone the same.

“We feel that Ms. Shockley, as a woman of color, may have been treated differently under the circumstances, than, for example, a white woman sitting on a picnic table in a public park,” Rommel said. “Regardless of any race-based concerns, we do not believe there were constitutional grounds to require her to leave the park or be arrested, which would likely be a 4th Amendment violation.”

Rommel says Shockley is seeking financial compensation from the town as a symbolic gesture. He says the $75,000 referenced in the lawsuit is simply a “jurisdictional threshold.”

“Ultimately, the judge or jury can give Ms. Shockley whatever amount they feel is appropriate,” he said.

Williams confirmed that the town had received the letter but said because it threatened litigation he was not able to comment.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.