It was a beautiful day in Freehold, New Jersey, so Jen Coombs decided to do First Amendment audits at the Monmouth County jail and courthouse to see how well officials there would respect her right to record in public.
The New Jersey woman who runs a Facebook page called Time to Stand – New Jersey ended up forced into a mental facility against her will for four days. Not that it kept her from doing another First Amendment audit on the same courthouse upon her release.
It all started on September 15, 2016 when Coombs made her way around the public areas of the facility and was approached within minutes by two jail employees who seemed determined to snatch the camera out of her hand before even asking her what she was doing.
It wasn’t just her camera they were after. Coombs was immediately placed in handcuffs and her car keys were taken. Police then used her keys to find her parked car.
Officials did not stop at just running her tags to get her information though. They used the keys to open her car and rummage around inside in an apparent search for something, anything, to charge her with.
After finding nothing, officials had to release Coombs, but not before trespassing her from the property.
Coombs, who was detained for about a half hour at the jail, did not let those Constitutional failures deter her. She left the jail and moved on to the county courthouse down the street to continue her investigation.
There, employees managed to fail even worse than they did at the jail.
After only a couple of minutes, she was approached by a Monmouth County sheriff’s deputy Lee, who came out of the building to run her off, telling her she could not record there.
“Under what statute?” Coombs asks.
Lee, who had no statute to cite that would ban the woman from recording, resorted to the old tried and true method of making things up by telling her that it is illegal to record a federal building, something PINAC readers know is absolutely false. Coombs was not fooled either.
It’s not something we haven’t seen many times before. Constitutional investigations, like the one Coombs was performing, seem to bring out the very best or the absolute worst in public officials, all depending on their training, their respect for the Constitution, and whether or not they have ever watched an Honor Your Oath YouTube video.
But it’s a good guess that Lee has never taken the time to learn about our rights to video record in public places, like the courthouse, because he followed Coombs down the public sidewalk, demanding her identification as she tries to walk away.
Again Coombs refused to identify herself, which is always the part of the audit that seems to throw law enforcement for a loop. Even though it’s really the most important part of the audit because it’s law enforcement’s best chance to prove that they respect our rights to video record in public and our right to be free from searches and seizures, especially when there is not even the suspicion of an actual crime.
The live streamed video posted by Coombs shows her calmly asserting her rights before being detained and handcuffed by Lee who described her actions to a lieutenant who arrived on scene soon after,
“She was filming out there. I came out. I approached her. I asked her to stop filming the building and the people coming in and out of the building. And then I asked her for ID. She refused to give the ID. I asked her three, three times…four times. She refused to give me ID. At that point I said you’re now being detained. I asked her four times to put her hands behind her back at this point because she refused to give me ID and she refused, refused to do that so she then she sat down and I handcuffed her.”
In an interview with YouTuber Time to Stand, Coombs says after the video ended, she was taken inside the courthouse and screened by some type of social worker before being taken to a local hospital and then admitted into a mental health facility where she stayed until Monday for a psychological evaluation.
Coombs was shaken by the experience but she didn’t let that stop her from returning to the courthouse Tuesday and testing officials again. This time Deputy Lee was strangely absent from any of her shots. In fact, the entire facility was a ghost town.
That may have been because of the outpouring of support Coombs received from her viewers and other civil rights activists all over the country. When viewers saw her video, a call flood was initiated and it’s probably safe to say that Monmouth County Courthouse employees were quickly educated in how to respect the rights of the citizens shooting video of public buildings.
It’s also safe to say that they learned what the heck a First Amendment Audit is and just what happens when you fail one so miserably.
We reached out to Monmouth County Sheriff’s Department who initially told us Thursday that Coombs was released at the courthouse instead of telling us she had been taken to the mental facility. Our public record requests for information about the incident to the department have gone unanswered.
Maybe you’ll have more luck.
Monmouth County Sheriff’s Department 732-431-6400
Monmouth County Correctional Institution 732-431-7860