Photographer sues Caltrans, CHP over Willits arrest

A freelance photographer who was arrested while covering protests against the controversial Willits highway bypass last summer is suing Caltrans and the CHP, alleging they violated his constitutional rights.

"I want to protect the First Amendment. That's my main incentive," said Steve Eberhard, 65, a retired welder-fabricator who moved to Willits from Santa Rosa 11 years ago.

The lawsuit includes allegations of false arrest, false imprisonment, civil rights violations, unnecessary delay in processing the arrest and intentional infliction of emotional harm.

CHP and Caltrans officials said they cannot comment on the case.

San Francisco attorney Duffy Carolan, a media law specialist and counsel to dozens of California newspapers, is representing Eberhard at no charge to him.

"It's very important for the press to have access to the area and the ability to monitor the CHP's response to the ongoing protest," Carolan said, explaining why she took the case pro bono.

Protests began early last year as Caltrans started work on the $210 million, 5.9-mile Highway 101 bypass project. Demonstrators have been arrested after venturing into the construction zone, occupying trees on the site and chaining themselves to heavy equipment.

Opponents say the project is unnecessary and damaging to the environment. Supporters and Caltrans say the project is critical to alleviating traffic congestion in downtown Willits, through which Highway 101 currently runs.

The project also has generated lawsuits from environmental groups and citations from government agencies, which have slowed, but not stopped progress on the bypass.

Work on the project resumed last week, Caltrans spokesman Phil Frisbie said.

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