U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Journalist Tonita Cervantes arrested at Standing Rock

Incident Details

Date of Incident
February 22, 2017
Case number
1:22-cv-00211
Case Status
Ongoing
Type of case
Civil

Arrest/Criminal Charge

Charges
Detention Date
Release Date
Unnecessary use of force?
Yes

Assault

Was the journalist targeted?
Yes
Status of Seized Equipment
Returned in full
Search Warrant Obtained
No
COURTESY TONITA CERVANTES

Photojournalist Tonita Cervantes was arrested shortly after taking this photo of law enforcement officers enforcing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s evacuation order for the Oceti Sakowin camp in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, on Feb. 22, 2017.

— COURTESY TONITA CERVANTES
December 19, 2022 - Update

Freelance photojournalist sues ND county, city, officers for wrongful arrest at pipeline protest

Editor’s Note: Following the filing of Cervantes’ lawsuit in December 2022 and an interview with her in January 2023, this incident has been updated to include her full accounting of her arrest. Updates have also been made to the metadata to reflect an assault during her arrest, dates of status changes to the arrest charges and specific quantities and types of equipment seized.

Freelance photojournalist Tonita Cervantes was arrested on Feb. 22, 2017, while covering demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline in Morton County, North Dakota.

Cervantes told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker in January 2023 that the protesters, who referred to themselves as Water Protectors, were evacuating the Oceti Sakowin camp that day in compliance with orders from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

After holding a ceremony that morning with speakers, dancers and singers honoring the sacrifices made by the protesters, the demonstrators began to march out of the camp. Cervantes said that she was in the front with several other photojournalists.

“We headed toward Cannon Ball Bridge, and I was running backward to capture as much as I possibly could with my camera and my live feed.” Cervantes said.

While some people boarded buses parked at the bridge to transport them to bus or train stations, Cervantes continued walking north on Highway 1806 alongside approximately 50 people. She told the Tracker that law enforcement officers from a number of agencies were waiting there.

“I was trying to be a witness to history and to record what was about to take place and what was happening,” Cervantes said. An officer instructed them to return to the bridge, saying that if they did not they would all be arrested, including members of the press. Cervantes told the Tracker that a man standing next to her asked the officers whether they had read George Orwell’s book “1984,” and said that they were deciding who was and was not allowed to record.

“Within just five seconds of him saying that I got tackled,” Cervantes said. “I was clearly identified as press: It was on the front of my poncho, it was on the back of my poncho and — as they found out later when I was strip-searched — it was on my fluorescent green boxer shorts that a friend had given me to keep warm.”

Cervantes said she also verbally identified herself as press, but she was still detained, her wrists tightly zip-tied and all of her gear seized, including her phone, camera, 14 memory cards and an external battery pack. Over the course of her detainment, Cervantes said the zip ties were secured so tightly that they were removed multiple times before she was ultimately cuffed using metal handcuffs.

Cervantes said officers transported her and the other detainees to the Mandan Police Department. Once there, she was told she had too many layers on and was forced to strip down to a thin long-sleeve shirt and leggings without shoes. She and another woman were held in what Cervantes described as a dog cage, sitting on a concrete floor near a door that would fill the room with frigid air whenever it was opened.

After a couple of hours, Cervantes said she and eight others were again loaded into a van and transported to the Lake Region Law Enforcement Center near the Canadian border.

Cervantes said she was released on Feb. 23 — nearly 24 hours after she was detained — after pleading not guilty at a remote arraignment hearing. According to a lawsuit later filed on Cervantes’ behalf, she was charged with intentional obstruction of government function, a Class A misdemeanor punishable by a year in jail.

Her seized equipment was returned on March 1, after the National Press Photographers Association wrote a letter demanding its release.

According to Cervantes’ lawsuit, Morton County District Judge Bruce Romanick dismissed the charge on April 27, citing lack of probable cause. Morton County appealed the dismissal in May, but voluntarily withdrew the appeal in early July. On July 9, the North Dakota supreme Court ordered the dismissal to stand.

Cervantes filed her lawsuit against the City of Mandan, Morton County, County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier, Deputy Sheriff Dion Bitz, Mandan Police Officer Tricia Schmeichel and three other officers on Dec. 19, 2022, alleging violations of her First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

“[Cervantes] was attacked, arrested, imprisoned and prosecuted because she was a photojournalist engaged in Constitutionally protected activity and to retaliate against her for doing so,” the lawsuit states. “Her arrest, imprisonment and prosecution were not isolated incidents.”

The Tracker documented the arrests of eight journalists, including Cervantes, covering the protests on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation from October 2016 to February 2017.

Cervantes told the Tracker in early 2023 that, after seeing the number of journalists and photojournalists killed around the world, she filed the suit to fight to ensure freedom of the press and that the truth be told.

“I love this country, and I think it is my responsibility as a citizen and as a photojournalist to uphold the First Amendment to the best of my ability,” she said. “If we don’t do that, if we’re too afraid, then the Constitution is meaningless.”

The Morton County Sheriff’s Department did not respond to calls requesting comment on the arrest or Cervantes’ lawsuit.

February 22, 2017

Tonita Cervantes, a freelance photojournalist, was arrested on Feb. 22, 2017, while covering events at the Dakota Access Pipeline camp. Police seized her phone, camera, lenses, external battery packs, blank flash cards, and data discs and held them as evidence.

Cervantes is charged with physical obstruction of government function, a Class A misdemeanor that could result in a year in jail. According to police records, Cervantes pleaded not guilty.

Cervantes' seized equipment was returned to her on March 1, according to the National Press Photographers Association.

Cervantes is scheduled to go to trial in June 2018.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].