High School Student Sues Police For Racial Discrimination After Acquittal On Theft Charge

In August 2023, Amara Harris won her case against the city of Naperville, IL, after she was fined for allegedly stealing a pair of AirPods in 2019 while she was a student at Naperville High School. Now, Harris is suing the city again, this time she is alleging that her civil rights were violated and that she was maliciously prosecuted by the city’s attorneys.

As ProPublica reported, Harris’s lawsuit, which was filed in federal court on May 21, details how the city took the case all the way to a jury trial in August 2023 despite a lack of evidence. In addition to suing the city, Harris is also suing a former school police officer Juan Leon and his immediate supervisor at the time, Jonathan Pope. Leon also admitted during the trial that he had no direct evidence that Harris had actually stolen the AirPods, which she has continually maintained were picked up by accident, as Harris believed they were a pair she owned. 

As Harris told ProPublica, her fight is not only for herself but for students to be treated fairly during any investigation by the school. Harris’s lawsuit seeks $20 million in compensatory damages, punitive damages, and seeks to force Naperville and its police department to implement training and oversight programs to avoid civil rights violations in the future. “They were wrong and they have to face consequences and be held accountable for what they did and for dragging this on.” Harris said. 

A ProPublica investigation, “The Price Kids Pay,” uncovered that Harris is not the only student in Illinois who had been subjected to a system of school ticketing masquerading as school discipline. In fact, the investigative report found that the state’s practice of levying fees and fines forced some parents into debt. Compounding matters, there is no option for a public defender to step in, which means that families that want to fight the system have to commit to a lengthy and expensive court battle, like Harris did. 

S. Todd Yeary, the former CEO of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition and one of Harris’s lawyers, told ProPublica that unless the legislature is going to address the problem, the only real way to fight back is to use the court system. “If the legislators aren’t going to fix the law, if the system isn’t going to make sure there is accountability, the only recourse is to get the courts involved. This is about one young woman’s courage to say, ‘The reason I am not going to pay the ticket is because I did nothing wrong.’”

In ProPublica’s investigation, they found that Black students were almost five times as likely as white students to be ticketed by the school’s police.

Harris’ suit alludes to this investigation, as it alleges the ticket issued to Harris “constituted racial discrimination, a denial of constitutional rights, intimidation, and retaliation.”

Naperville City Attorney Mike DiSanto responded to Law & Crime via an emailed statement detailing the city’s intention to fight Harris’s lawsuit, and attempted to distance the city from the actions of the police officers named in the suit. “The police officers involved in this matter relied upon independent eyewitness statements from school officials and students in issuing the theft citation to Ms. Harris,” the statement said. 

The statement continued, “Further, prior to trial, the court denied Ms. Harris’ motion to suppress evidence, motion to dismiss, and motion for a directed verdict which further supports the evidentiary basis for issuing the citation. The fact that the jury acquitted Ms. Harris does not negate the factual basis for the actions of the city and its officers. The Naperville Police Department is an accredited law enforcement agency that provides significant training to its staff and maintains the highest standards of integrity which the city maintains were met in this matter.”

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