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After being accused of stealing AirPods in high school, a woman files a federal civil rights lawsuit

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 A 21-year-old woman who was accused and cleared of stealing AirPods from a classmate while she was in high school has filed a $20 million civil rights discrimination lawsuit against the city of Naperville and two members of its police department.

The lawsuit filed May 21 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, seeks damages for the pain and suffering Amara Harris experienced as she worked to clear her name over three years, while her case worked its way through the judicial system.

Her ordeal began in 2019 when she was a junior at Naperville North High School in suburban Chicago and noticed her AirPods were missing. She retraced her steps back to a table where she had been sitting in the Learning Commons, a space where students gather before class.

She said she spotted a pair of AirPods, assumed they were hers and took them.

When it was brought to her attention that the serial number on the AirPods she grabbed matched the number of another student’s AirPods, Harris turned them in to the school dean, she said.

About two weeks later, a Naperville Police Department officer who serves as a school resource officer ticketed her for allegedly stealing the AirPods. Harris denied the accusation and refused to pay the $100 fine.

The decision led to a nearly four-year legal battle that ended last year when a jury found her not liable for violating the local ordinance against theft.

“It was just very hard because I was in school with the accusation,” Harris said. “It was a shocking surprise to me that took a really huge toll on my mental state.

“I was angry. I was sad. I felt that I was targeted.”

Harris’ mother, Marla Baker, said her daughter, once an outgoing cheerleader, now barely speaks above a whisper and keeps to herself.

“I try to hold my tears back because I know she’s fighting through depression, and she’s fighting through anxiety. She is building up trust for people again,” Baker said. “She is persevering through all of those things right now and she is getting back to that big personality, that big smile.”

amara harris airpods theft suit (Adrienne Broaddus / NBC News)
amara harris airpods theft suit (Adrienne Broaddus / NBC News)

Harris’ attorney Todd Yeary said Harris was required to attend nearly 50 hearings before the case went to trial. While some were held via video conference, others required her to travel to and from Naperville while she was a student at Spelman College in Atlanta.

“I think we have a duty to make sure that we not only remedy it for Amara, but as she said, fix it for other students who may have to go through the same,” Yeary said.

The lawsuit also names the officer who ticketed her, Juan Leon, and his supervisor, Sgt. Jonathan W. Pope, who it said enabled a system of “improperly ticketing students for minor infractions, and disproportionately targeting students of color.”

Leon testified during the trial that there was no direct evidence Harris had stolen the AirPods.

Leon and Pope did not respond to requests for comment.

Naperville City Attorney Mike DiSanto said in a statement after the lawsuit was filed that police and school officials handled the situation appropriately, and the city and its officers “are prepared to vigorously defend this lawsuit.”

“We believe the allegations are without merit,” DiSanto said. “The police officers involved in this matter relied upon independent eyewitness statements from school officials and students in issuing the theft citation to Ms. Harris.

“The fact that the jury acquitted Ms. Harris does not negate the factual basis for the actions of the City and its officers.”

ProPublica investigation published in 2022 found that Black students in Illinois were ticketed more often than their white classmates. Later, ProPublica published an article on Harris that illustrated the point.

Yeary said the accusation against Harris, who is Black, shows how racial bias in law enforcement can lead to potential civil rights violations.

“The reason there’s a civil rights aspect to it is that there’s a disparate application of the issuance of tickets on the basis of race,” he said.

Harris, who graduated from Spelman last month with a degree in international studies, said she wants to work with local leaders and state lawmakers to change policy regarding how resource officers operate in schools across Illinois.

“I’m seeing the brighter side of it, seeing how I can help other kids and help schools,” she said.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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