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Naperville woman who beat city’s high school theft accusation suing for $20M in damages – Chicago Tribune

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Former Naperville North High School student Amara Harris, who successfully fought Naperville in court over a charge that she stole a fellow classmate’s AirPods, has filed suit seeking $20 million in compensatory damages from the city.

Harris, represented by civil rights attorneys S. Todd Yeary and Juan Thomas, alleges her civil rights were violated by the theft citation issued by a city police officer and the city’s subsequent prosecution, according to a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.

The case claims Harris, who is Black, was racially discriminated against and faced intimidation and retaliation during which she incurred “economic damages, emotional distress, humiliation, loss of dignity and other injuries.”

Harris’ mother, Marla Baker, said Wednesday she’s looking for the city “to take accountability for the harm they have caused my daughter and our family.”

“I want them to issue an apology to Amara … for stealing her childhood from her,” Baker said. “From stealing the rest of her youth from her.”

Harris, now 21, graduated Sunday from Spelman College in Atlanta with a degree in international studies, her mother said.

Yeary, who spoke on Harris’ behalf, said this incident has consumed five years of his client’s life.

“This is Amara’s lawsuit and everything that’s alleged in it, she can confirm she’s been through,” he said.

In 2019, when Harris was a 17-year-old junior, a Naperville police officer assigned to Naperville North issued her a ticket for allegedly stealing another student’s AirPods, a violation of municipal law.

From the beginning, Harris maintained she picked up the student’s AirPods accidentally, mistaking them for her own. Supported by her mother, Harris declined to pay a fine or settle.

The city of Naperville took the case to court last year, the first time in at least a decade that a Naperville ordinance violation advanced to trial. After two days, a six-person jury found Harris not liable for the alleged theft.

Harris’ lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago, names the city of Naperville; Juan Leon, the school resource officer who issued the ticket; and Leon’s then-supervisor Jonathan Pope as defendants.

Leon and Pope are still currently employed by the Naperville Police Department, city spokeswoman Linda LaCloche confirmed. Leon is now assigned as a detective in the department’s investigations division and Pope is still part of the school resource officer unit, she said.

In a written statement, city attorney Mike DiSanto said the city is aware of Harris’ lawsuit and “believe the allegations are without merit.”

He said the “fact that the jury acquitted Ms. Harris does not negate the factual basis for the actions of the city and its officers” and noted that the officers involved relied on “independent eyewitness statements from school officials and students in issuing the theft citation.”

Prior to last year’s 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,” he said.

Yeary chastised city officials Wednesday for not doing anything “to address the harm that’s been done to Amara Harris.”

“The only option she had was to seek remedy of the court,” he said.

Harris’ lawsuit lists several counts of alleged wrongdoing: abuse of process, malicious prosecution, intentional infliction of emotional distress and discrimination under the Illinois Civil Rights Act.

Two counts concern allegations of officer misconduct and cite Harris’ case as part of a broader systemic problem.

Two years ago, the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica teamed up to look into the widespread practice of police in Illinois schools issuing costly tickets to students for violating municipal ordinances. ProPublica and the Tribune first reported on Harris’ case as part of the broader investigation, “The Price Kids Pay.”

Through the investigation, reporters documented 12,000 tickets Illinois students received over nearly three years for violations, including possession of vaping devices, disorderly conduct and truancy.

It also identified a pattern of racial disparities in ticketing, including at Naperville North High School, in which Black students were almost five times more likely than their white peers to receive tickets.

The suit also alleges the city failed to exercise the required “degree of care in the supervision of all employees, agents, and officers under its direction and control.”

In his statement, DiSanto attested that, “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.”

Beyond compensatory damages, the suit also seeks punitive damages from the defendants and injunctive relief requiring the city to implement training and oversight measures “to prevent future violations.”

Chicago Tribune reporter Rebecca Johnson contributed.

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