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Man arrested for wearing cap sues Pinellas

A deputy arrests a man in 1998 for wearing a cap with "LAPD" on it. The charges are dropped, but the man claims his rights were violated.

photo
[Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
Chris Neidrich, 27, was arrested in October 1998 for wearing a cap identical to this one and charged with unlawful use of a police insignia.

By ANITA KUMAR

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 7, 2000


CLEARWATER -- Chris Neidrich got a personal apology from the sheriff after he was arrested for wearing a baseball cap.

That wasn't enough.

Neidrich sued Pinellas County on Thursday, alleging false imprisonment when he was handcuffed and placed in the back seat of a sheriff's cruiser for donning a baseball cap with the letters "LAPD," the abbreviation for the Los Angeles Police Department.

Neidrich says his life has spiraled downhill since his arrest on Oct. 25, 1998.

He says he suffered "enormous embarrassment" and became fodder for national columnists and morning disc jockeys. He was denied a job in law enforcement, he says, because word of his suit made the rounds before it was filed.

"It's not looking good," the 27-year-old Palm Harbor resident said. "I don't think I will ever escape this."

On Thursday, sheriff's spokeswoman Marianne Pasha declined to comment.

"We don't comment on pending litigation," she said. "Once the suit is filed, we can't comment."

Neidrich said he graduated with honors from a Hillsborough police academy and received his state certification, but he can't get a job. He said he has applied to 30 to 40 agencies in Florida, including sheriff's offices in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Manatee counties.

Meanwhile, Neidrich is working on commercial air conditioners with a friend but says he may return to being a bodyguard.

John Trevena, one of Neidrich's attorneys, said the Sheriff's Office is trying to divert attention from the arrest by exaggerating Neidrich's criminal history.

County records show Neidrich has been charged five times: once for felony aggravated battery, twice for disorderly conduct and once each for obstruction of justice and unlawful assembly. He was convicted only of misdemeanor assault.

"Chris did nothing to prompt the arrest," Trevena said. "It was a horrible violation of his civil rights. It sickens me."

Neidrich was walking into a Largo convenience store when Deputy Richard Wright asked him if he was an LAPD officer. When Neidrich said he wasn't, Wright told him to take the hat off or face arrest.

Neidrich complied. He then drove to another store and put the cap back on as he left his car to use a pay phone. Wright saw him again and arrested him.

Neidrich said he spent nearly two hours sitting handcuffed in a sheriff's cruiser before a deputy finally issued him a notice to appear in court, averting a trip to the jail.

Under state law, it is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail for anyone to wear anything that could fool a "reasonable" person into thinking a non-officer is actually a member of law enforcement. The law provides examples, such as police badges, uniforms and identification cards, but does not specifically mention baseball caps.

After reading about Neidrich's case in the St. Petersburg Times, Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice called the cap arrest inappropriate and asked prosecutors to dismiss the charge, which they did. He also apologized to Neidrich and authorized a formal letter of reprimand for Wright.

Neidrich's lawsuit in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court accuses the Sheriff's Office of false imprisonment, battery and failure to train and supervise its deputies.

It also accuses the office of "wrongfully and overtly asserting dominion or control over the plaintiff's personal property."

The property? That would be the cap.

The cap, a gift from a friend, was seized as evidence after the arrest but was returned to Neidrich after the charge was dropped. He doesn't wear the hat anymore. It ended up in another friend's trophy case.

But Neidrich said he plans to get another hat made.

- Researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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