A woman who was wrongfully charged with attacking a journalist in downtown Minneapolis last fall has sued the city, claiming that the misidentification forced her to pay legal fees and led to a torrent of online abuse.
The woman, Lauren P. Peterson of St. Anthony, alleged that a Minneapolis police detective misidentified her based on "tips" culled from social media, where amateur sleuths tried to identify the person who allegedly assaulted Alpha News videographer Rebecca Brannon at an anti-police brutality protest. The suit names the city of Minneapolis and Dean Christiansen, the detective who filed a sworn affidavit in support of the criminal complaint against Peterson.
The City Attorney's Office initially charged Peterson last September on counts of assault, riot and disorderly conduct but later dropped the charges after, the office said in a statement, "additional evidence showed that Ms. Peterson was not in Minneapolis at the time this offense took place."
Peterson's lawsuit said she was camping hundreds of miles away at the time of the alleged attack. Furthermore, Peterson says she has a tattoo on the inside of her left wrist that proves she was not the person in the video, who has no such marking.
In an interview with the Star Tribune last October, Peterson, through her attorney, accused police of failing to take basic steps to verify the identity of the alleged attacker, putting her, her husband and their four children in danger.
According to the suit, Christiansen wrote in the affidavit that he had identified Peterson as the suspect based on a tip suggesting that the alleged assailant's name was Lauren Peterson and that she lived in St. Anthony.
But, Christiansen, the suit alleges, "knew or should have known that a 'tip' from a person (or persons) who simply found someone online resembling a suspect does not constitute information from which a reasonable and prudent officer could conclude there is probable cause to support criminal charges against the accused."
As a result of the misidentification and subsequent charges, Peterson said, she was forced to hire a defense attorney and was subjected to "harassment and threats online" that resulted in "economic and emotional harm."
Attorneys for the city disputed most of the suit's allegations in a follow-up filing. An MPD spokesman referred questions about the case to the Minneapolis City Attorney's Office, which declined to comment.
Alpha News, a conservative news outlet, posted a video of the Sept. 25 incident on social media, where it was widely shared.
In the suit, Peterson said that on the night of the incident she received an "alarming" message on Facebook from someone she didn't know. About half an hour later, she received another Facebook note from a stranger, this time with a link to an Alpha News article reporting that someone named Lauren Patricia Peterson had assaulted one of the news outlet's reporters at a protest.
More "obnoxious" messages followed, the suit says, and later some people began posting her home address on social media, tagging her employer and schools she attended in online comments. The suit claims that other commenters posted details of her foster care license.
"Meanwhile, people online were calling Plaintiff's employer and social media contacts in an attempt to get her fired and get her foster care license revoked," the suit says. "Plaintiff barely slept for several nights, and she continued to receive concerning comments online, plus threatening e-mails and phone calls (and a threatening greeting card)."
According to the charges, Brannon, who was not identified in the criminal complaint, was working as a journalist covering a protest downtown over the police shooting that left a Black man paralyzed in Kenosha, Wis. The charges say Brannon was confronted by three or more people near the Government Plaza light rail stop, near the intersection of S. 5th Street and S. 4th Avenue, who demanded that she leave the area. The video captured them hurling expletives at Brannon, calling her fascist and racist. Brannon is heard telling them that she has a right to be there.
The charges said that several people threw water bottles and other items at Brannon. One woman was seen in the video posted online striking Brannon with an orange traffic cone. The woman also used it to push Brannon and allegedly struck her with a full water bottle, the charges said.
Brannon's phone was thrown into a water fountain by another member of the group, according to the charges. She later recovered it.
It's unclear whether anyone else has been charged in the incident.
The suit seeks at least $50,000 in damages.
Libor Jany • 612-673-4064