A Mississippi civil rights attorney alleges she was wrongfully arrested over the weekend and believes it may have been in retaliation for her advocacy work in the city of Lexington highlighting claims of discrimination by police against its Black residents.
Civil rights attorney Jill Jefferson was arrested Saturday by the Lexington Police Department after filming a traffic stop of a Black motorist in the town’s square, she said.
“My plan was to film footage of police falsely arresting Black people, and I just happened to get caught up in it,” Jefferson told CNN Tuesday.
Recalling her Saturday arrest, Jefferson said she had been invited to a private event by some of the community’s Black residents. Jefferson said he was leaving the event when he saw a Black motorist being detained by police and began filming the incident on her cell phone from her car. She told CNN she was flagged down by one of the officers and ordered to pull over.
“I stopped and the officer asked, ‘Show me your ID.’ He just started yelling,” she said.
Jefferson refused to show her ID, which she said seemed to escalate the situation.
When asked to respond to Jefferson’s claims, a person who answered the phone at the Lexington Police Department declined to give her name but said, “No comment.”
On Wednesday, CNN’s follow-up calls and messages to the Lexington police chief also went unanswered.
Michael Carr, Jefferson’s attorney, declined to release the cell phone video to CNN saying that he would prefer to wait until the release of the full body-worn camera from the Lexington Police Department.
Jefferson said she was still “traumatized” by the experience, recounting how officers aimed a Taser at her as they ordered her out of the car, eventually “yanking” her out of the car and “snatching” her phone out of her hand.
“They illegally searched my car. They went through my glove compartment, under my floor mats, they went into the briefcase and unzipped it and started taking things out and looking through them. All of this is an illegal search,” she told CNN. Police did find a handgun legally registered to her, Jefferson said.
Jefferson said he knew one of the arresting officers from his civil rights work in the city and had previously had tense interactions with him over the phone.
“I heard them talking about me once they took me to jail. They said, ‘That’s the woman that’s suing us.’ That’s when I learned that they definitely knew who I was when I got there,” she said.
In 2022, Jefferson, who founded the Mississippi civil rights groups Julian, filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Lexington and its police department alleging intimidation, harassment and unlawful imprisonment by officers in the Lexington Police Department. The suit is currently in the discovery phase with a trial date set for June 2024, she said.
The office for the City of Lexington attorney Katherine Barret Riley declined to comment about the ongoing litigation or Jefferson’s latest claims of a wrongful arrest.
Todd Butler, an attorney representing Lexington in the federal lawsuit, told CNN, “We don’t comment on pending litigation.”
In September 2022, the US District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi was granted in part the City of Lexington’s motion to dismiss the federal lawsuit. The court found in part that circumstances for Black residents had improved since the firing of its former police chief Sam Dobbins. Additionally, the court also found no proof that the city had a policy of making unjustified arrests or using excessive force.
In July 2022, Lexington’s then-police chief Sam Dobbins, who is White, was terminated after audio obtained by CNN of him using racist and homophobic slurs, telling one of his officers, “I don’t care if you have to kill am* therf**ker in cold blood,” and that he himself had killed 13 people in the line of duty.
Jefferson spent two days in the Holmes County Jail on charges of failure to comply, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, which she called “false.” She said she was put in the back of the police car with the motorist whose initial stop she started filming. Jefferson said that he was held for two days because he “refused to pay a fee to be released, out of protest to what happened.” Eventually, she said, the fee was waived by the Lexington Police Department, and she was released. Her trial date for her arrest is set for July.
“These are the same charges we see time and time again against Black motorists in the city, falsely imprisoning people. This time it just happened to be me,” she said.
Jefferson’s arrest comes about a week after Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice, traveled to Lexington to examine allegations of police brutality. Jefferson said he met with Clarke during that trip to emphasize the problems relayed to him by Black residents.
CNN’s call to Robin McCrory, Lexington’s mayor, went unanswered.
Located in Holmes County in central Mississippi, Lexington has approximately 1,600 people, according to 2020 census data, of which 79% of whom are Black.