The night before the final Obama administration event centered on issues important to the transgender community, two dozen activists from across the country gathered for a festive seven-course dinner at the Northwest Washington apartment of local advocate Lourdes Ashley Hunter.
As the party went on, with deviled eggs, peach cobbler and gospel music, two neighbors in the complex knocked on Hunter’s door to complain about the noise and called D.C. police. Those calls led to a chaotic confrontation involving four officers and to Hunter’s arrest, a police report shows.
The American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia on Tuesday sued D.C. police and the city, accusing the officers in court filings of entering Hunter’s apartment and arresting her without a warrant, in violation of local and federal laws. The lawsuit resurrects the issue of warrantless entries by police into private homes — identified as a problem four years ago by a civilian oversight agency.
In response to the 2013 report by the Police Complaints Board, the department told the D.C. Council it had revamped its policies and training for recruits and veteran officers.
“This is not the first time that MPD has gotten notice of these violations,” said ACLU lawyer Shana Knizhnik, referring to the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. “What’s clear is that the training wasn’t sufficient to prevent the violation that occurred in this case. They need to get it right.”
Hunter, 41, said in an interview that the problem was compounded because of what she said is a fraught relationship between the police and the community her organization, TransWomen of Color Collective, represents. On the night of her arrest, Hunter was locked up for several hours at the local police precinct on misdemeanor charges of simple assault and resisting arrest. The U.S. attorney’s office later declined to prosecute Hunter.
“There was no reason for the police to respond with such aggression and excess,” Hunter said in a statement. “I hope that elevating this humiliating and painful incident helps us work toward a system in which police protect us and enforce the laws — not break them.”
D.C. police spokesman Dustin Sternbeck said he could not comment on the arrest or the assertions in the lawsuit.
Sheila Alexander-Reid, director of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s office of LGBT affairs, said that concerns about the safety of transgender women of color are valid and that there has long been the perception that police and prosecutors do not care about the community.
But Alexander-Reid called the District an inclusive city and pointed to mandatory training for the police that her office helped create. She said the city’s newly appointed police chief, Peter Newsham, has already demonstrated his commitment to the community in how thoughtfully he handled as interim chief the investigation into the deadly shooting of a transgender woman last year.
Hunter’s attorneys said in their court filings Tuesday that the entry into her two-bedroom apartment without a warrant was illegal and unjustified. D.C. law expressly prohibits arrests without a warrant for alleged misdemeanor crimes that occur before officers arrive on the scene unless the suspect is dangerous or a flight risk or if evidence could be destroyed. The entry into Hunter’s home by police without a warrant also violates Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in D.C.
Since the 2013 oversight report, the police board has received more than 50 complaints involving allegations of warrantless entry or a warrantless search, and in some cases both, according to Michael Tobin, executive director of the D.C. Office of Police Complaints.
The ACLU’s Knizhnik said: “Police can’t just come in because the door is open. They didn’t have a right to arrest her at any point — in the hallway or inside the door — because D.C. law is very clear. Rather than let her give her side of the story, they jumped to a conclusion and arrested her.”
The arrest took place one week after the November presidential election, and the activists dining in Hunter’s third-floor apartment were eagerly awaiting the White House Transgender Community Briefing the next afternoon, with then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch as the keynote speaker.
About 8 p.m., Hunter’s downstairs neighbor complained that the party was too loud, according to Hunter. Two hours later, another neighbor complained.
“We exchanged words,” Hunter said in an interview. “She was ruining my party.”
Ten minutes later, four police officers came to the apartment for what the lawsuit describes as an investigation of “a possible assault.”
An officer asked one of the neighbors standing outside Hunter’s apartment to indicate who had pushed him. He pointed to Hunter, according to the lawsuit.
“I pushed you? I pushed you?” Hunter responded, according to the court filing. She told the officers there had not been an assault or excessive noise.
When one of the officers began to move toward her, Hunter stepped back into her apartment. She was followed inside by the officer, who “grabbed her by her arm and neck,” according to the complaint, which seeks unspecified damages from the four officers and the District government.
A video of the arrest recorded by one of Hunter’s friends shows an extended standoff and brief physical struggle involving the officers, Hunter and her dinner-party guests, with Hunter repeatedly shouting, “Let me go!”
Hunter was eventually handcuffed and pulled out of her apartment before being taken to the police station, according to the lawsuit.
She was held from about 11 p.m. until 3 a.m., returning home in time to get ready to go to the White House.