Smyrna changes ordinance in response to lawsuit stemming from death of Nicholas Thomas

Press conference at Smyrna City Hall -- photo by Haisten Willis

At a press conference in front of Smyrna city hall on Monday, Feb. 13, plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against the city of Smyrna and Smyrna Police Department discussed a federal court order they said protects their free speech rights and the rights of other local citizens.

The lawsuit was in response to an incident last fall. The plaintiffs were protesting the fatal 2015 shooting of Nicholas Thomas by police. They were passing out flyers at the Jonquil Festival in downtown Smyrna. Police removed them from the area, citing a city ordinance, because it was being used by retailers. According to their press release, the group was threatened with arrest and “unlawfully removed from public property without cause.”

“I’m pleased to report that the court decision prompted Smyrna to take action, although it was reactive, to change the code that had fuzzy and sloppy language, that perhaps might have been misleading to some of their law enforcement officers with respect to citizens and the First Amendment,” Williams said. “The problem is that they attempted to do that in darkness and out of mind, if you will, for citizens.”

The federal district court in Atlanta granted Richard Pellegrino, Aaron Bridges and Cobb SCLC Freedom and Justice Fund, Inc. an injunction. The lawsuit was filed on Jan. 23, seeking both damages and a change in the ordinances.

“Ultimately, we want reconciliation,” said Ben Williams, president of the Cobb County chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “We had to go to court because of behavior by Smyrna police to try and suppress the First Amendment rights of some of our members who were sharing information in a public space.”

The lawsuit stems from the shooting of Nicholas Thomas by SPD in 2015. In the incident, officers arrived at the Vinings Crossing Shopping Center where Thomas, 23, worked at a Goodyear tire store.

Thomas was driving a customer’s 2006 Maserati around the building when the officers were attempting to serve the warrant. Thomas attempted to flee the scene, was shot by officers and died inside the vehicle.

Protesters have attended Smyrna city council meetings since Thomas’s death, saying the shooting was unjustified. Smyrna police say Thomas drove around the building several times at a high rate of speed and that an officer fired into the moving car in fear that he placed them at risk to receive serious bodily injury or death.

The officer who shot Thomas, Sgt. Kenneth Owens, was not charged for his actions.

On Feb. 6, the Smyrna City Council agreed to rescind ordinance 66-9.1(e) which, according to the suit, “unconstitutionally discriminates based on content of a speaker’s message, and ordinance 66-9.1(g)(1), which “creates an impermissible presumption of criminality for citizen leafleting in certain circumstances.”

Per the court order, Smyrna has agreed not to re-enact the challenged provisions, and will not be able to exclude private citizens from public areas where citizens are engaging in lawful speech under the First Amendment.

Though the lawsuit was successful in getting the ordinance changed, Pellegrino said the plaintiffs are still seeking damages, including for incurred legal fees.

“It’s important for government elected by the people to be transparent and accountable,” Pellegrino said. “Smyrna, like many towns, cities and counties, does not have a stellar history in terms of that transparency and accountability.”

Williams said attempts to meet with Smyrna city officials have “yielded no fruit at all” and that the group has had no contact with the city since the court order was issued.

Efforts to contact the city of Smyrna and the Smyrna Police Department for comment were not successful at press time.