Adding Insult to Injury

Even after false arrest, Portland man must pay up

Zachary Senn | 6/28/2017, 9:18 a.m.
All that James Lea wanted was a public apology from the Portland Police Bureau following his unwarranted arrest, during which ...
James Lea shows off his ’79 Chevrolet El Camino at Alberta Park in northeast Portland, the car he says was at the center of controversial racial profiling arrest Portland police made in 2011 when Lea while trying to park during the West Coast Hip Hop Awards at the Roseland Theatre, downtown. Police said they apprehended him because they saw a gun in the vehicle, a firearm he was licensed to carry. The charge was later dropped, but Lea is now facing $8,000 in legal bills after he sued and an appeals court ruled his detention was legal. Zachary Senn

All that James Lea wanted was a public apology from the Portland Police Bureau following his unwarranted arrest, during which he was publicly humiliated in a local tabloid. Now adding insult to injury, the Portland man is being compelled to pay the court fees that the city of Portland accrued throughout his five-year-long legal battle.

Lea had hoped that his case would bring attention to the unnecessary escalation of conflicts between police officers and people of color that have marred law enforcement relationships in minority communities in Portland and across the country, and possibly result in better training for the city’s police force. Instead, he is facing a charge of up to $8,000 for the city’s legal bills since he sued City Hall and lost.

According to Lea, racial profiling played a role in his arrest, which took place on Aug. 19, 2011, the evening that the West Coast Hip Hop Awards were held at the Roseland in downtown Portland.

He was looking for parking and pulled into a parking lot when the ordeal began. While paying a parking attendant, Portland Police Bureau officer Sgt. Richard Steinbronn began waving a flashlight into Lea’s ’79 Chevrolet El Camino, which had been left running.

“I was standing a couple of feet away to pay the parking attendant when the officer screamed ‘gun,” Lea told the Portland Observer.

He said Steinbron and other officers then pointed their weapons at him and instructed him to drop to the ground, all while shouting expletives. Lea complied with the orders, and tried to explain that the gun they saw in his car was owned by him and he was fully licensed to carry the weapon, having a permit in his back pocket.

Steinbronn, a long time police officer who was involved in an officer-involved shooting in 2006 that resulted in the death of a 37-year-old Navy sailor at the Eastport Plaza Military Recruiting Facility, proceeded to arrest Lea and charge him with recklessly endangering another person.

Lea said while being driven to jail, Steinbronn lectured him about how he shouldn’t be allowed to carry a gun. He said the officer told him that his arrest was for endangering the public by leaving his firearm inside the vehicle, but said the car was locked.

After being processed and booked at the Justice Center jail, however, Lea was released without being charged. By the time he’d been released, his booking photo had already been published in the local tabloid known as “Busted.”

Lea eventually sued for $65,000 for the emotional distress caused by his unnecessary arrest. His case proceeded all the way to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ultimately found that Steinbronn was within his rights as a law enforcement officer to detain Lea.

The city had offered Lea $20,000 to settle before the case went to trial; however, Lea opted to bring the case before a judge. Now that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of the officers, Lea is responsible for paying the city’s court fees, which total just under $8,000.