By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 14, 2006
A federal appeals court ruled yesterday that a top D.C. police official can be held personally liable for the arrest of hundreds of protesters at a 2002 anti-globalization rally, but it said more information was needed before it could decide whether Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey can be held liable as well.
The three-judge panel sharply condemned the arrests of nearly 400 World Bank and International Monetary Fund protesters in September 2002 at a downtown park. The ruling called the actions of Assistant Chief Peter J. Newsham "indefensible" and said "no reasonable officer" would have acted as he did.
The decision was a victory for plaintiffs seeking damages against Newsham, Ramsey and other city and federal officials in a class-action lawsuit. Newsham's conduct is at the core of the dispute.
Newsham ordered his officers to cordon off Pershing Park on Pennsylvania Avenue NW during the Sept. 27, 2002, protest and to arrest the people -- some protesters, some passersby -- who were inside.
Those inside the park were not asked to disperse or warned that they would be arrested if they did not leave. Instead, they were restrained with plastic handcuffs, taken away on buses and detained for as long as 36 hours. Ramsey, who was monitoring the situation, gave his approval for the arrests.
Several lawsuits were subsequently filed against the city, including the class-action suit that was the subject of yesterday's ruling. Ramsey and Newsham sought personal immunity in the class-action case, meaning that any damages awarded to the plaintiffs would be covered by the city.
U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan refused to grant them immunity in a decision handed down in September 2004, saying the arrests violated the plaintiffs' constitutional rights. In its ruling yesterday, the U.S. Court of Appeals said that Newsham can be held liable and Ramsey may be liable as well.
The issue of the chief's immunity will depend on whether he knew, or made an adequate attempt to determine, that no effort was made to contain in the park only the people who had been observed breaking the law, the appellate court said. The ruling was issued by Harry T. Edwards, Karen LeCraft Henderson and A. Raymond Randolph.
An attorney for the plaintiffs, Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, said the decision sends a message that "even at the highest levels, you cannot violate people's constitutional rights with impunity."
Ramsey's attorney, Mark H. Tuohey III, said the chief will seek to show that he believed there was probable cause to arrest everyone in the park.
Newsham referred questions to his attorney, Robert E. Deso Jr., who said he is reviewing the rulings and weighing how to proceed.
Even if either police official is held personally liable, the city can choose to cover whatever damages are awarded.
Although the mass arrests were initially defended by Ramsey and Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), the city agreed a year ago to settle one lawsuit by paying $425,000 to seven people who were arrested, apologizing and changing police procedures. The D.C. Council passed legislation restricting the circumstances under which police can encircle protesters or use physical restraints against them.