Second Justice Lab settlement announced days after first, underscoring need for national police reform as nation reaches inflection point in response to Tyre Nichols killing

NEW ORLEANS – The ACLU of Louisiana and Venable LLP have reached a settlement with the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) on behalf of Mr. Michael Celestine — a Black man who was chased, seized, and arrested after an officer noted an alleged “bulge” in his clothing. Mr. Celestine spent more than a year incarcerated during the deadly COVID-19 pandemic before his criminal charges, including resisting an officer, were dismissed.

As alleged in the complaint, on a cold afternoon in January 2020, an NOPD officer was surveilling the allegedly “high crime area” where Mr. Celestine was living with a friend. The officer called nearby patrollers and after a short foot chase, one of the defendants immediately resorted to excessive force while others stood by and failed to make any attempt to protect Mr. Celestine, despite his repeated pleas of “I can’t breathe.” Because of the officers’ wrongful conduct — both in using excessive force against Mr. Celestine and in failing to intervene — the ACLU’s lawsuit alleged that all of the involved officers should be held liable for the harm that Mr. Celestine endured that afternoon.

“We are grateful for the outstanding work of our legal team in settling this case and achieving this important outcome,” said ACLU of Louisiana Legal Director Nora Ahmed. “In representing our client, our primary focus was to hold these NOPD officers accountable for the abuse and mistreatment of an innocent man who was targeted simply because of the color of his skin. It’s our hope that this settlement, as with every other Justice Lab settlement, will result in fewer incidents of unconstitutional policing and vicious brutality.”

During his unconstitutional arrest, officers callously threatened Mr. Celestine with a gun and then viciously tased him. Mr. Celestine was not behaving violently and posed no threat of physical harm to the defendants. For over a decade, NOPD has been under a consent decree from the federal government, which prohibits investigative stops without reasonable articulable suspicion, arrests without probable cause, and force that is unreasonable — including the deployment of a Taser on a non-violent suspect who does not pose an imminent threat of physical harm, such as Mr. Celestine. 

Despite initial statements that the city’s vast camera network would only be used to help respond to incidents, and not be used for general location-based surveillance, NOPD’s tracking and assault on Mr. Celestine demonstrate the troubling mission creep associated with the city’s surveillance network. Designating residential neighborhoods as “high-crime areas” paints all residents as potential threats. Coupled with an expansive and secretive surveillance network and racially-biased facial recognition, the system encourages racial profiling and unconstitutional stops, searches, and uses of force.

Mr. Celestine remained incarcerated for a year on false charges, crammed inside the Orleans Justice Center during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, where, at one point during his incarceration, over 200 people were infected with COVID-19. Finally, in January 2021, after twelve long months, the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office dropped every charge against him, and he was released. While no amount of money will ever repay the harm inflicted upon Mr. Celestine, the recent settlement allows him the ability to finally begin the healing process as he attempts to move on from this deeply traumatizing experience. In reaching this settlement, the defendants admit no liability. 

This is the second settlement announced by the ACLU of Louisiana’s Justice Lab. It comes on the heels of the campaign’s first settlement announced earlier this week against the Shreveport Police Department.