Associated Press Writer
January 01, 2005

A man arrested while waving a state flag in front of the Capitol ended up getting the charge dismissed and won a token legal victory against the state.

The case of Joseph Wyatt Willis of Prattville was tied to the Christmas celebration at the Capitol three years ago.

In December 2001 – in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Washington and New York – then-Gov. Don Siegelman had the official state Christmas tree in front of the Capitol decorated with tiny American flags.

Willis, first lieutenant commander for the Alabama Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, complained to Siegelman’s office that state flags ought to be included. He followed up his complaint Dec. 17, 2001, by standing near the state Christmas tree while holding up a large Alabama flag.

Capitol Police told him to leave, but he refused, citing the long history of protests on the Capitol steps. Capitol officers arrested him for disorderly conduct, saying they were concerned he might harm the Christmas tree or a passer-by.

Court records show the state dropped the charge when the case went to court on April 29, 2002. Then Willis sued the state in federal court.

The case finally went to trial two years later. On April 14, 2004, a jury ruled the Capitol Police had violated Willis’ constitutional rights and awarded him nominal damages of $1.

On Nov. 10, U.S. District Judge Harold Albritton ruled the state must pay Willis’ lawyer $2,500 for successfully suing the state and $437 in court costs.

The experience cost Willis several days away from work and didn’t get him anywhere near the $100,000 in damages he had sought against each officer, but he’s still glad he did it.

"I hate for people to forget what our state flag looks like," he said.

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