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Black transgender woman wrongly jailed in drug case is awarded $1.5 million in suit against Atlanta officers

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A federal jury last week awarded $1.5 million to a Black transgender woman who had filed suit against two Atlanta police officers for jailing her on a false drug trafficking charge, in a case that shed light on an incentive system run by the city’s police that a judge said could lead to discrimination.

In October 2015, Ju’Zema Goldring was crossing the street in midtown Atlanta with friends, after having recently moved to Georgia from Maryland. She was stopped for jaywalking by Atlanta police officers Vladimir Henry and Juan Restrepo, who then took her into custody on grounds that she could be trafficking cocaine.

The officers focused on the fact that Goldring had been carrying a stress ball, saying it could be hiding drugs. She told the officers to cut open the ball and test its contents, one of her attorneys, Miguel Dominguez, said in a phone interview. Henry complied, conducting multiple tests.

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All of them turned out negative. At one point, as “a visibly frustrated” Henry was testing the stress ball’s contents, Goldring heard another Atlanta police officer who was passing by Henry’s desk telling him to “give it up buddy, it’s not a drug,” according to Dominguez. But he didn’t.

Henry filed an arrest warrant against Goldring, saying she had been carrying illegal substances. Goldring ended up in jail and wouldn’t be released until almost six months later, in March 2016, after prosecutors realized the drug tests in fact had been negative. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation completed its own tests on the sand inside Goldring’s stress ball, more than a month after her arrest, and they were negative, as well.

Judge William M. Ray II, who oversaw the lawsuit against Henry and Restrepo, said he hoped the $1.5 million compensation provides Goldring with “some semblance of justice,” in a judgment statement signed on Thursday.

In the statement, Ray expressed suspicion that a points system run by the Atlanta police may have contributed to the wrongful arrest: “One witness, a Chief Deputy of the [Atlanta Police Department], testified about a system that awards officers with points for taking different actions — e.g., perhaps a point for writing a traffic citation or a few points for making an arrest.”

Failure to meet the points target could lead to repercussions for both the officer and the officer’s supervisor, Ray said, citing testimony at the trial. “The Court is concerned that such a system may create perverse incentives for officers,” Ray said.

The judge cited a hypothetical example of an officer nearing the end of a shift without yet meeting the points target. “Rather than writing a citation for someone speeding on the highway (or jaywalking across the street), it would seem the officer might be tempted instead to arrest that person for just a couple extra points,” Ray wrote.

In Goldring’s case, “as it turns out, it wasn’t drugs at all, but she spent nearly 6 months in the Fulton County jail based on this seemingly bogus charge,” Ray wrote. “The Court hopes the APD and the City of Atlanta might consider reforming these practices.”

Jeff Filipovits, another lawyer for Goldring, said her case was evidence of Atlanta’s “old way of policing, driven by bias and prejudice.”

Ray didn’t explicitly link Goldring’s ordeal to her race or identity. But he said that letting officers “selectively arrest some people for the common practice of jaywalking may also allow officers to arrest some people as a pretext for discrimination.”

A report published last year by the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative showed that sexual minorities were overrepresented in the justice system. In 2019, for example, gay, lesbian and bisexual people were more than twice as likely to be arrested as straight people, according to the findings. The authors also found higher rates of reported law enforcement harassment against transgender people of color than against White transgender people.

The case “is a victory for transgender civil rights because it shows the city that people do care how it treats its citizens,” Filipovits said in an email. “The jury saw our client as deserving as the same justice as everyone else.”