Dan King
Dan King · January 23, 2024

NORFOLK, Va.—Today, the owners of a Parksley, Virginia, food truck filed a federal lawsuit against the town of Parksley and Councilmember Henry Nicholson, after the councilmember repeatedly harassed them and damaged their property, and town officials retaliated against them for criticizing town policies. Theslet Benoir and Clemene Bastien, the owners of Eben-Ezer Food Truck, have teamed up with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to file the lawsuit arguing that Nicholson and the town violated numerous constitutional rights when Nicholson came onto their property, cut the food truck’s water line, used his position on the town council to lead a charge to ban food trucks, and the town threatened the couple with jail time for operating a permitted food truck. 

“Parksley town officials have shown a shocking disregard for the constitutional rights of Theslet and Clemene,” said IJ–Florida Managing Attorney Justin Pearson. “Government officials are not allowed to pursue personal vendettas or punish people for criticizing their policies.”  

Clemene and Theslet, a married couple from Haiti, came to the U.S. in 2009 and received asylum. Like many Haitian immigrants, the couple settled in Virginia’s Eastern Shore, where they began working for a chicken processing plant. After a few years at the plant, Clemene and Theslet opened their own business, Eben-Ezer Variety Store, where they offer groceries, home goods, and other personal items tailored to the area’s Haitian population.   

In June 2023, the couple purchased a one-year food truck permit from the town of Parksley and opened Eben-Ezer Food Truck, the town’s first food truck. While their customers were thrilled with the Haitian dishes, one person was not happy with the truck’s presence: Councilmember Nicholson. Shortly after the truck opened, Nicholson stopped by to rant about how competition from a food truck would hurt established restaurants and falsely accused the owners of dumping grease (it was water from a burst town pipe that had nothing to do with Clemene, Theslet, or their food truck). After some back-and-forth, Nicholson came onto their property and cut the food truck’s water line, causing $1,300 in food spoilage and damaging the truck’s equipment.  

The following day, a truck arrived to deliver new groceries for the food truck. Nicholson showed up again and tried to stop the delivery from taking place. When Clemene confronted him, Nicholson yelled at her to “go back to [her] own country,” in front of several witnesses. Clemene called the police, who were unable to calm Nicholson down. He then told police that Clemene and Theslet did not have the paperwork to operate their food truck—a claim they easily disproved by showing police their paperwork. He even told the police that he had cut their food truck’s water line based on his authority as a councilmember; when the police explained that he had no authority to cut their water line and should not have done so, he became hostile towards the officers. As the altercation came to an end, Nicholson parked his truck behind the delivery truck, hoping to prevent the delivery. The councilman’s truck was ultimately towed. 

“We were scared and confused when Mr. Nicholson began harassing us,” said Theslet. “We couldn’t believe this could happen in America.” 

Then, on October 9, Nicholson was finally able to convince the town council to pass his proposed food truck ban, but the mayor publicly stated, including to reporters, that because the town had sold them an annual food truck license, the town did not intend to enforce the ban until the summer when their license expired. On November 2, IJ sent a letter to the town calling on officials to repeal the ban. The very next day, the town’s attorney sent a threatening letter to Clemene and Theslet completely changing the town’s position and alleging that Clemene and Theslet had been committing criminal misdemeanors every day they operated their food truck, even before the letter was sent. Each offense was punishable by 30 days in jail and $250 fines per day. Facing years of incarceration, the couple stopped operating their food truck. 

“Parksley’s ongoing efforts to shut down Clemene and Theslet’s business after they sent a letter criticizing a new ordinance is a blatant example of unconstitutional retaliation,” said IJ Attorney Dylan Moore. “Shutting down safe and legal businesses over a personal dispute is not a legitimate exercise of local government power.”  

IJ has defended other innocent people against retaliation from local government officials. This year, the Supreme Court will hear IJ’s case challenging immunity for city officials in Castle Hills, Texas, who arrested a grandmother in retaliation for criticizing them. IJ is also representing a man in East Cleveland, Ohio, whom city officials targeted with a never-before-used ordinance, damaging his truck in the process, all because he supported the mayor’s election opponent. And in Newton, Iowa, IJ is seeking accountability after city officials arrested a man for calling city officials “fascists” for previously silencing his speech.