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Suit Filed in GOP Convention Arrests

N.Y. Police Accused of Overstepping Bounds, Detaining Bystanders

By Michelle Garcia
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 23, 2004; Page A03

NEW YORK, Nov. 22 -- Twenty-three people filed a lawsuit Monday in federal court here, saying New York city officials violated their constitutional rights by orchestrating massive arrests and detentions to sweep up political dissenters during the Republican National Convention in August.

The lawsuit seeks to represent all of the nearly 2,000 people arrested during the convention. Police later lodged charges against the demonstrators that were the equivalent of traffic tickets.

The lawsuit asks that a federal judge issue a permanent ban on mass arrests as a means of crowd control during political demonstrations. Lawyers said police officers denied detainees access to legal representation and medicine, and subjected them to verbal abuse.

The demonstrators are also demanding that the city pay unspecified monetary damages.

"It is a bedrock principle of our democracy that the police cannot simply sweep the streets because they find protest inconvenient or embarrassing because the RNC was in town," said lawyer Jonathan Moore, who filed the lawsuit with the National Lawyers Guild. "Our Constitution guarantees treatment better than chain-link fences, razor wire, isolation from family and legal counsel, and armed guards at the ready."

City police officials dismissed the accusations. "Those who broke the law are still complaining that they were inconvenienced by [their] arrest, and their advocates continue to make false allegations about conditions" of their detainment, said Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne.

Monday's action was the latest in a flurry of lawsuits filed against city agencies because of police action during the Republican National Convention. State Supreme Court Judge John Cataldo held the city in contempt for not abiding by a court-ordered deadline to process detainees. The city has appealed.

Last month the American Civil Liberties Union filed two lawsuits accusing the city of conducting illegal arrests, illegally fingerprinting detainees and excessive detention.

Many civil liberties lawyers say that police in a number of cities appear to have adopted a tactic of preemptive arrests. In Seattle, police arrested hundreds of protesters during a meeting of the World Trade Organization in 1999. Demonstrators sued, and Seattle officials later reached an out-of-court settlement.

In Washington, police arrested hundreds of protesters during the 2002 meeting of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. City officials have since settled one case brought by three art students who say they were arrested even though they were innocent bystanders.

In the New York City cases, the plaintiffs include a paralegal, a 16-year-old student and a woman arrested on her way to buy ice cream.

Elizabeth Fleischman, a former vice president at Morgan Stanley, was riding with a group of bicycle protesters through Manhattan when she was arrested. She said her group followed the route specified by the police. "It was another tragedy in this city," said Fleischman, who survived the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center.

The Washington Post examined the police tactics and a number of the arrests in September. The Post found many examples in which police officers arrested demonstrators who were marching peacefully and lawfully.

In other instances, police arrested bystanders who were unconnected to the demonstrations. Numerous people held at Pier 57, a former bus depot, reported developing respiratory and skin conditions during their detention.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company