By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 19, 2008
A federal judge has ruled that dozens of protesters were arrested unlawfully by D.C. police during disturbances the night of President Bush's second inauguration.
Judge Ellen S. Huvelle determined that about 70 protesters, who were boxed into an Adams Morgan alley after a chaotic impromptu street demonstration, were not given a chance to disperse before police arrested them. The ruling, released Tuesday, clears the way for a trial to determine how much they can get in damages.
D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, who led the department's special operations division at the time, ordered the mass arrests after some demonstrators broke windows, threw rocks, damaged cars and spray-painted buildings. The judge ruled that police arrested the plaintiffs without providing evidence tying them to the actions.
"A peaceful political protester may not be punished for failing to cease his protected activity simply because others associated with the assembly may have committed illegal acts," Huvelle wrote.
The suit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the D.C chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. The ruling is the latest legal setback for the D.C. government over police problems tied to how they handle protesters and demonstrations. The government has paid more than $1 million to settle lawsuits alleging improper police conduct dating to Bush's first inauguration in 2001.
"When people march peacefully in the street to support a political cause, they should not be arrested," Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the ACLU of the National Capital Area, said in a statement yesterday.
"If people commit crimes, those people should be arrested, not their neighbors," Spitzer said.
D.C. officials said that they plan to appeal the ruling.
The events started after protesters attending a concert, which was monitored by an undercover D.C. police officer, passed out fliers urging people to demonstrate at the site of an inaugural ball. A large group marched to Adams Morgan, and trouble ensued.
A police detective reported the vandalism and other behavior to Lanier, who ordered that the protesters be arrested on rioting charges. After the group was boxed into an alley, Lanier told officers to charge about 70 people with a lesser offense of parading without a permit.
In a statement issued last night, Lanier defended her action.
"As a police officer, I am required by law to take police action if a crime is committed in my presence," she said. "In this case, I observed a crime in progress as personal property was being maliciously destroyed by a crowd that was out of control. Had I not taken action, I would have been in violation of the law."