BATON ROUGE, La. – A settlement has been reached in a federal lawsuit that accuses a Louisiana police officer of forcing two women to expose their breasts so he could photograph them during a roadside encounter.
A court filing says the settlement was reached Wednesday, but attorneys for the two women and the city of Ville Platte said Thursday that the deal's terms haven't been finalized yet.
The lawsuit asserts that Ville Platte police officer Larry Paul Fontenot threatened the women with arrest and with pepper spray if they didn't comply with his "deviant sexual demands." The suit also claims Fontenot showed his photographs of the women to other officers shortly after the August 2015 encounter.
One of the women filed a complaint against Fontenot. He was arrested on extortion and video voyeurism charges and resigned from the police department.
"He never returned to work after that incident," Ville Platte Police Chief Neal Lartigue said Thursday.
Fontenot's trial on the criminal charges is set for March 6. His attorney in the criminal case didn't immediately respond to a call for comment.
The police force in Ville Platte, a city in Evangeline Parish with roughly 7,000 residents, has been the focus of other civil rights complaints.
A Justice Department investigation recently concluded that the Ville Platte Police Department and Evangeline Parish Sheriff's Office routinely used unconstitutional "investigative holds" to arrest and jail hundreds of people for questioning during criminal investigations. These people often were strip-searched, held in cells without beds, toilets or showers and detained for at least three days without getting a chance to talk to loved ones or contest their arrests, the Justice Department said.
"We have additional concerns that these unconstitutional holds have led to coerced confessions and improper criminal convictions," the department's civil rights division said in a Dec. 19 report.
In the early-morning hours of Aug. 15, 2015, two women and a man heading home from a bar encountered Officer Fontenot after they pulled over to fix a flat tire. The lawsuit says Fontenot began taking pictures of the women's backsides and making lewd comments. The women initially ignored Fontenot's commands to expose themselves but complied after he threatened to summon a State Police trooper to arrest one of the women for drunken driving, the suit says.
"Officer Fontenot relentlessly pursued his deviant sexual requests to the point of following (one woman) around her vehicle and grabbing her by the arm causing significant bruising," the suit says.
The suit claims it was a "frequent practice" for Fontenot to photograph women he had stopped while on duty; it asserts that the man with the women heard the officer say he would add the pictures to his "collection."
One of the women filed a complaint with the sheriff's office after another officer approached her and said her photographs were being circulated and discussed within the police department, according to the suit.
The city of Ville Platte, its police chief and Fontenot are named as defendants in the suit. Joy Rabalais, an attorney for the city, said the settlement must be presented to Ville Platte's city council before it can be finalized.
"Just have a couple more hoops to jump through to finish it up," Rabalais said.
She and plaintiffs' attorney Andre Toce declined to discuss any possible terms.
"To say anything now would jeopardize my clients' rights," Toce said.