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A District of Columbia jury late yesterday awarded $97,500 in compensatory and punitive damages against the District of Columbia and two D.C. Metropolitan Police Department officers for unconstitutionally arresting Lindsay Huthnance in November 2005 outside a convenience store in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
When Ms. Huthnance entered a 7-Eleven and saw a number of police officers inside, she made a comment to her boyfriend about the apparent waste of taxpayer money. Taking offense, two officers followed her outside, stopped her, and demanded her ID. When Ms. Huthnance questioned their right to demand her ID and asked for one officer’s badge number, the officer ordered her to get up against the wall, searched her and arrested her for disorderly conduct. She was held in a stationhouse cellblock until the next morning, then released without charges.
Arrests for being disrespectful to police officers or talking back to them are known as “contempt of cop” arrests, and are a recognized form of police misconduct nationwide. There is abundant evidence that police overuse disorderly conduct laws and similar statutes to arrest people for contempt of cop. The day after her arrest, Ms. Huthnance called the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed this lawsuit on her behalf, along with attorneys John Moustakas, Jeff Skinner and Andrew Hudson of the law firm Goodwin|Procter LLP.
After nine days of trial testimony, the jury found arresting officers Liliana Acebal and James Antonio individually liable to Ms. Huthnance for false arrest and for violation of her constitutional rights, including her right to free speech under the First Amendment, and awarded her $90,000 compensation. The jury also assessed $5,000 in punitive damages against Officer Acebal and $2,500 in punitive damages against Officer Antonio. Ms. Huthnance’s arrest record will also be expunged as a result of the jury’s verdict.
In addition to deciding that the individual officers were liable to Ms. Huthnance, the jury also found that the District of Columbia was directly responsible for her unconstitutional arrest because it had been on notice for years before her arrest that improper arrests for “contempt of cop,” disguised as disorderly conduct arrests, were a potentially widespread phenomenon within the Metropolitan Police Department, yet had closed its eyes to that unconstitutional practice and had failed to take adequate steps to prevent it.
Philip Eure, Director of the D.C. Office of Police Complaints, testified at trial that his agency had alerted the city that police officers were making improper “contempt of cop” arrests in late 2003—two years before Ms. Huthnance’s arrest—and had made recommendations about how to fix the problem. Mr. Eure testified that then-Police Chief Charles Ramsey said these recommendations would be implemented. But it came to light at trial that the recommended changes had not been implemented.
Additionally, the Police Chief of Charlottesville, Virginia, Timothy J. Longo, Sr., testified that the Metropolitan Police Department’s systematic failure adequately to train and supervise its officers regarding disorderly conduct arrests amounted to deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights of D.C. citizens, and that this deliberate indifference was a direct cause of Ms. Huthnance’s arrest.
“We brought this lawsuit because the D.C. Police had failed to train and supervise its officers to eliminate this pattern of abusive, unconstitutional behavior,” said Arthur Spitzer, Legal Director of the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital. “We hope the MPD will now take its responsibility more seriously.”
In his closing argument to the jury, Ms. Huthnance’s lead trial counsel, John Moustakas, relied on damaging concessions by the city’s own expert witness to establish the District’s knowledge of the pattern of unconstitutional arrests and its failure to fix the problem. The city’s expert conceded on cross-examination that the police department was “irresponsible” in failing to monitor disorderly conduct arrests to identify patterns of unconstitutional conduct, and that it had “duped” the Office of Police Complaints by failing to live up to representations it made about the steps it would take to address the “contempt of cop” problem.
Commenting on the verdict, Ms. Huthnance said, “I am pleased with the jury’s decision and relieved that my name has been cleared after five years of pursuing this case. I hope that the verdict makes the D.C. police take note and make changes so that no one else will ever have to go through what I did that night.”