- Date of Incident
- December 21, 2021
- Justin Pulliam (Independent)
- Case number
- Case Status
- Type of case
- Arrest Status
- Arrested and released
- Arresting Authority
- Fort Bend County Sheriff's Office
Obstruction: interference with public duties
- May. 16, 2022: Charges pending
- Obstruction: interference with public duties
- Unnecessary use of force?
- Equipment Seized
- Status of Seized Equipment
- Returned in part
- Search Warrant Obtained
Independent journalist Justin Pulliam was arrested and his equipment seized while filming a mental health check by Fort Bend County Sheriff’s deputies in Damon, Texas, on Dec. 21, 2021. He was charged with interference with public duties but the initial proceedings ended in a mistrial in March 2023. In the interim, Pulliam filed a federal lawsuit against the county.
Pulliam lives in Fort Bend County near Houston and independently reports on local government and law enforcement for his social media channels, including on YouTube and Facebook. According to his lawsuit, Pulliam followed officers to a remote corner of the county where they were conducting a wellness check on a man whose case Pulliam had been following for several years.
“Justin had recorded previous [sheriff’s office] interactions with the mentally ill man and believed officers had a history of unnecessarily escalating their responses to him,” the lawsuit stated.
Pulliam began filming from a gas station located approximately 130 feet from the man’s home after receiving permission from his mother, according to his footage from the incident. At some point, a deputy informed the other officers via radio that Pulliam had arrived, identifying him by name and as a “local journalist,” Pulliam’s lawsuit stated.
Moments after two mental health advocates arrived at the scene, a deputy approached and first directed only Pulliam and then the advocates to go across the street. Pulliam began walking toward the street, but turned to resume filming when the advocates began speaking to the officer.
Seconds later, the officer again directed Pulliam to leave; Pulliam responded that he had a right to be there as long as the other bystanders were permitted to remain. As the officer began walking toward him while counting down from five, Pulliam’s footage shows him backing up further until the officer reached him and placed him under arrest.
During the booking process, Sheriff Eric Fagan and the chief deputy took Pulliam into a room and attempted to question him, according to his lawsuit. When he refused to speak without an attorney, both reportedly became agitated and indicated that the booking process would continue, according to the lawsuit.
Pulliam was released after several hours once his $500 bail was posted. His equipment — which included a hand-held camera, body camera and cellphone — remained in police custody. The majority of the equipment was returned on Jan. 7, 2022, though the sheriff’s office continued to hold his body camera, memory cards and cellphone.
A week later, officers obtained search warrants for the memory cards and body camera, arguing that they held evidence of Pulliam’s alleged interference with public duties. A grand jury indicted Pulliam on May 16, 2022.
Pulliam’s case went to trial on March 28, 2023, according to court records reviewed by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. It was ruled a mistrial after one of the six jurors held that Pulliam should be convicted while the other jurors voted to acquit, confirmed Christie Hebert, one of the attorneys at the public interest law firm Institute for Justice representing Pulliam in his federal suit.
Wesley Wittig, second assistant district attorney for Fort Bend County, told the Tracker that no new trial date has been requested.
For Pulliam, it has been a life-altering experience. “It’s not just the arrest and one police officer,” Pulliam told the Tracker in July 2023. “It’s like the whole system is out to get you. And so that, taken as a whole, is very chilling. It makes me scared to really do much of any filming in this county.”
The Institute for Justice filed the civil rights lawsuit on Pulliam’s behalf on Dec. 5, 2022, against the county, Sheriff Fagan and four others in the sheriff’s office. The suit alleges violations of Pulliam’s First, Fourth and 14th Amendment rights by arresting him and seizing his equipment, as well as by barring him from one of the sheriff’s press conferences in July 2021.
On June 29, 2023, District Judge David Hittner denied the county’s motion to dismiss the majority of Pulliam’s claims. Hittner ruled that Pulliam had sufficiently argued that he had been singled out for exercising his First Amendment rights and that the officers are not protected by qualified immunity at this time.
The Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment when reached in July 2023, citing the ongoing litigation.
Hebert said in a statement following the ruling that Hittner recognized the gravity of Pulliam’s claims.
“The heart of the First Amendment is the right to speak out about government, and Fort Bend County does not get to pick and choose who will cover their activities,” Hebert said.
Hebert told the Tracker that the case is tentatively scheduled to go to trial in early 2024.