- Date of Incident
- September 8, 2020
- Hugo Padilla (Independent)
- Case number
- Case Status
- Type of case
- Arrest Status
- Arrested and released
- Arresting Authority
- Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department
Rioting: failure to disperse
- Sep. 8, 2020: Charges pending
- Sep. 11, 2020: Charges dropped
- Rioting: failure to disperse
- Unnecessary use of force?
Livestreamer Hugo Padilla was allegedly struck with crowd-control munitions and assaulted by law enforcement before being arrested while documenting protests in Los Angeles, California, on Sept. 8, 2020. Deputies later obtained a search warrant for one of his cellphones.
Padilla subsequently joined as a plaintiff in a lawsuit with three others in October 2020 against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Los Angeles County and then-Sheriff Alex Villanueva, alleging violations of his Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
Colleen Flynn, an attorney representing Padilla, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that Padilla attended the protest to broadcast it on his YouTube channel, Alien Alphabet, while providing audio narration.
Protesters had gathered outside the South Los Angeles Sheriff's Station following the Aug. 31 fatal shooting of Dijon Kizzee, a Black man, by deputies in a nearby neighborhood.
Flynn said that Padilla began filming the demonstration from the parking lot of a nearby 7-Eleven, and confirmed to the Tracker that throughout the protest Padilla was wearing a black bicycle helmet with “PRESS” written in silver lettering on multiple sides.
Approximately an hour into the protest, deputies declared the protest unlawful and ordered the crowd to disperse. According to the lawsuit, officers began to advance on the demonstrators and shortly after fired crowd-control munitions. The crowd dispersed and many individuals — including Padilla — fled into the neighborhood.
In Padilla’s livestream from the protest, he said that he was attempting to circle around to the far side of the crowd, but as he did, a law enforcement helicopter shined a searchlight on him. Within seconds and without warning, Padilla was shot with a crowd-control munition, he said.
The lawsuit claimed the hard projectile struck Padilla in the knee, knocking him off his bicycle and onto the ground. Deputies then “jumped” on him and one of them punched him in the face, splitting his lip, Flynn said. Padilla was tightly handcuffed — his lawsuit states that restraint marks were still visible weeks later — and forced into the back of a large truck where loose pepper ball munitions caused his eyes to water painfully.
According to Flynn, Padilla had no opportunity to identify himself verbally as press before he was arrested, but he did tell deputies he was a journalist while in the truck and in an interrogation room.
Padilla’s bicycle was seized, as was his personal iPhone, which was booked into evidence and later searched. But a Samsung cellphone Padilla was using to livestream fell from his hand and, his suit claimed, deputies did not retrieve it.
Flynn told the Tracker that she believed deputies deliberately left Padilla’s phone and that of freelance photographer Julianna Lacoste, who is also her client, because they were livestreaming.
“It appears that the deputies that abandoned Mr. Padilla and Ms. Lacoste's cell phones on the street while they were livestreaming did so to get rid of the evidence that may have recorded their actions, including their use of excessive force and violation of my clients' constitutional rights,” Flynn wrote in an email.
Padilla’s lawsuit states that once he arrived at the South Los Angeles Sheriff's Station, some of the officers used personal cellphones to photograph Padilla and the other detainees while laughing. Lacoste and student journalist Pablo Unzueta, who were also arrested that evening, said the same.
Padilla was ultimately released from a county jail in downtown LA midmorning the following day with a citation for failure to disperse. His wallet, headphones and a set of keys — not his — were returned to him; the remainder of his equipment was not. Deputies ultimately returned Padilla’s bicycle in December 2020 and his iPhone in June 2021; his bicycle helmet was never returned.
When Padilla appeared for his hearing date at the Inglewood Courthouse on Sept. 11, 2020, according to his lawsuit, a court clerk told him that no charges had been filed.
Sheriff's Deputy Trina Schrader, a spokesperson for the department, told the Tracker in the days following the protest that an investigation had been launched into the events that day. “The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department values the media and highly respects the freedom of the press,” she added.
The day following the protest, sheriff’s deputies obtained a search warrant for cellphones belonging to more than a dozen individuals, including Padilla. The search warrant and an affidavit in support of the warrant were only released in May 2023, more than 2 1/2 years after the incident, and following an August 2022 motion to unseal filed by the First Amendment Coalition and independent news organization Knock LA.
The media organizations said that the sheriff’s department had fought the release of the materials for more than two years, in violation of California state law and the First Amendment. The release only came after Villanueva was ousted in a November 2022 election and replaced by Robert Luna, who acceded to the unsealing.
Susan E. Seager of the UC Irvine School of Law, who represented Knock LA and FAC in the case, said the timing shows that the department never had a good reason to seal the warrants in the first place.
Photos accompanying the warrant materials included the helmet marked “PRESS,” which Padilla’s attorney confirmed belonged to him. FAC noted in a later statement that police records confirmed that the LASD knew journalists were included as targets, which raises press rights concerns.
“Those photos, along with the fact [the] journalists have said they verbally identified themselves as press, should have put pause on the probe or, at a minimum, prompted the department to make disclosures to the judge to ensure press rights were protected,” the FAC statement said.
David Snyder, executive director of FAC, also commented: “While we are grateful the public can finally see these documents, they should have been able to do so long ago. There can be no real accountability without knowledge – what did the police tell the judge who issued this warrant? Now this crucial question can be answered, and accountability for any unjustified arrest and seizure can at long last begin.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include additional details concerning the seizure and return of some of Padilla’s equipment.