Associate professor of architecture Olon Dotson and his son Lyle Dotson on Ball State University's campus Monday, Aug. 27, 2018, in Muncie. Kyle Crawford, DN
Ball State father and son reach settlement in unlawful New Orleans arrest
On Oct. 7, 2015, Lyle Dotson, an 18-year-old North Central High school student, was eating beignets in the New Orleans French Quarter with his father’s Ball State architecture students.
Less than an hour later, he was arrested by Louisiana State police officers for a crime he had not committed.
“It feels like black lives don’t matter. It just reinforced that fact,” said Olon Dotson, Lyle’s father and a professor of architecture.
Nearly three years after the original incident, Lyle and Olon reached a settlement in a federal lawsuit with Louisiana State Police in a federal lawsuit after the unsubstantiated, false imprisonment and unlawful profiling of Lyle.
In the fall of 2015, Olon, along with faculty member Dr. Karen Keddy, an associate professor of architecture, took nine undergraduate and graduate architecture students to explore the the social and environmental justice-themed architecture of the southeastern United States for an architectural design class field trip.
The itinerary included visiting various landmarks, museums and universities for a week. New Orleans was one of the final stops of cities the class would visit.
Lyle, now a 21-year-old Ball State student, was there accompanying his father, Keddy and the students while he was on his high school fall break, just like he had done since he was 4 years old.
Olon has been to the New Orleans area 22 times with students and faculty, many of them were volunteer-based after the devastation Hurricane Katrina wrought on the area.
The group arrived in New Orleans around 7:30 p.m. and stopped at the famous Cafe Du Monde in the French Quarter around 7:45 p.m. Olon and a student driver left to check in at Hyatt Hotel, pick up room keys and meet the rest of the group at the corner of Canal and Bourbon streets.
Olon gave instructions for the group to walk through Jackson Square, past the St. Louis Cathedral, up to St. Peter Street to Bourbon Street and finally make a left on Bourbon to Canal streets for the meeting.
Olon encouraged the group to cut through Pat O’Brien’s, a restaurant bar with a traditional interior courtyard space. At the time, Lyle was under 21 and was unable to enter the bar, so he was instructed to walk around the side of the bar to meet the rest of the group.
Lyle walked around to what he thought was the other side of the building but ended up walking to the other side of the block instead of the exit of the bar, getting lost near the corner of Toulouse and Bourbon streets waiting to reunite with the group.
While Lyle looked for his group — talking to his dad on the phone, trying to figure out where everyone was — he was attacked by three Louisiana State Police officers, with Olon still on the other end of the line.
Lyle said the attack was quick and he was barely able to process what was going on. Within seconds, his phone was taken from his hand and his wrists were cuffed after being apprehended from behind.
The officers forced Lyle against the wall and interrogated him. Despite checking his Indiana identification card, North Central High School identification card and running a background check that showed no previous criminal record, the officers were still suspicious of him. The original police report stated the officers thought Lyle was following undercover narcotics officers for an extended period of time.
“What they saw was somebody on a street corner looking for somebody and that’s exactly what I was doing,” Lyle said. “I was looking for the people who I was with previously before I got separated.”
From there, the officers wanted to take a picture of him. Lyle refused and with handcuffed hands tried to cover his face by bending over and lifting his thigh. The officers claimed Lyle kicked, but not injured, one of the officers. They then arrested Lyle and sent him to the New Orleans Police Department 8th District Precinct.
Still on the line, Olon heard a scuffle, scream and then disconnection of the phone call. After trying to call his son back several times with no answer, Olon thought Lyle had been mugged, so he called the police and let them know Lyle was missing. Later, the police called back and said they had Lyle.
“I was so happy and excited. I went down there to meet them,” Olon said “When I got there, he was chained to a bench and that’s when they told me that he assaulted a police officer. I said, ‘No, not him. You got the wrong person.’”
Despite Olon’s pleas, Lyle was taken away and sent to the Orleans Parish Prison (OPP), with one of the charges being battery of a police officer.
According to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Louisiana has the highest average annual mortality rate per 100,000 of state and federal prisoners with numbers taken from 2001 to 2013. The highest of those numbers was in 2013 at 628 prisoners.
Two years before Lyle was arrested — 2013 — a video recording was leaked showing prisoners from OPP doing drugs, gambling with real money and brandishing a gun with bullets.
Lyle said the facility he was put in was new yet it already seemed aged and run-down. Elevators were slow, doors were slow and the prison staff at the facility were mean and unorganized.
He was given a jumpsuit and a pair of flip flops — no toothbrush, toothpaste, bed sheets or pillows. The food was nasty, Lyle said, so he didn’t eat the entire time he was there.
Lyle was granted one phone call, which he used to assure Olon that everything would be OK.
“I was focused on getting out,” Lyle said. “But I knew I would get out.”
Lyle said by the time he left, his cellmate, a kind 40-year-old, had run out of toilet paper after not being given any in weeks. The man used the toilet in their cell, resorting to his girlfriend’s letter to wipe himself.
That night, Olon said he sat in his car crying outside of OPP, hoping his son would not be harmed, aware of the extreme danger present within the prison.
“This is a universal problem that goes far beyond, and is much bigger than Lyle and I,” Olon said.
The next day, Olon and the rest of the group attended Lyle’s hearing at the New Orleans Municipal Court. Lyle was in an orange jumpsuit, chained to another man who had been charged with attempted murder. Olon said the disorganized hearing lasted four hours and he pleaded with the court to release Lyle.
After the hearing, around 4 p.m., Olon posted the bail for Lyle’s release, though he wasn’t discharged until 1:30 a.m.
Olon said after Lyle was released, he returned to New Orleans and hired a team of local attorneys to help with the criminal defense. A portion of the legal fees were supported by family, friends and Ball State faculty, staff and alumni. The attorneys proved the charges were false and they were dropped. The next step was expunging Lyle’s records.
The expungement was successful, but there is a permanent FBI file resulting from the charges.
After a year of emotional and financial distress, Olon and Lyle decided to pursue legal action against the Louisiana State Police from the chief to the original officers in a federal lawsuit.
They had three different separate legal teams: one for the general counsel, one for the dismissal of the charges and the expungement of the records and one for the lawsuit which was handled by the MacArthur Justice Center (MJC), a non-profit law firm devoted to civil and human rights, in New Orleans.
“I don’t have a lot of faith in our criminal justice system. I don’t have a lot of faith in our police force and their integrity. I don’t have a lot of faith in the relationship of those to the prison industrial complex,” Olon said.
Filing the lawsuit was against the recommendation of their previous lawyer — the expungement lawyer — who said they would not be able to win in Louisiana. The lawyer said the suit was futile considering the state’s corruption, and advised it would be best to forget about it and move on.
Lyle said he was unsure of how his trial would turn out but remembered thinking, “Whether I lose or not, my story will continue to travel.”
With the help of MJC attorney James Craig, Olon said he and Lyle went to New Orleans several times to handle legal proceedings.
At the federal trial held in January 2018, Olon said the jury that was summoned for the case did not represent the population of Louisiana as a whole, with only one black juror.
According to census data from July 2017, 59.8 percent of the population of New Orleans is black with 34 percent of the population is white.
Olon said the predominantly white jury found only one of the four officers guilty on one of the more than 40 charges brought against the officers.The Dotsons and their lawyers said this verdict was inconsistent, and the U.S. District Judge granted a retrial.
Before heading to retrial, however, a settlement was reached out of court in August, ending the legal battle. Olon said while the settlement did bring some closure to the case, he is still disappointed by the verdict of the first predominantly white jury in January.
“I really don’t feel like we won. I feel like we came to a point of resolution on the case. But I would’ve felt if we had won, if they had found officers guilty of what they actually did in trial, in front of a federal judge back in February, January,” Olon said. “I see time and time again officers getting off and I’m just glad that my son is alive and that they didn’t shoot him or tase him or injure him because that could’ve easily happened.”
Olon said he believes if the officers had killed Lyle, the result of the original jury would have still been the same.
“I feel the same way,” Lyle said. “Not a victory.”
The settlement will be used to support Lyle’s college education as he studies studio art with prospects to study visual communications at Ball State. Neither Olon nor Lyle could disclose the amount of the settlement amount as part of the settlement agreement.