ACLU Files Class-Action Lawsuit Challenging Unconstitutional Mass Arrest of Antiwar Demonstrators in Washington

March 27, 2003 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON- In a lawsuit filed in federal court today, the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area charged police officials with deliberately violating the constitutional rights of more than 400 peaceful antiwar demonstrators and bystanders by directing them into a police trap and then arresting them although they had not violated the law.

“In this country, the government is not supposed to arrest you unless you break the law,” said Arthur Spitzer, Legal Director of the ACLU of the National Capital Area. “But the evidence will show that the police deliberately rounded up hundreds of people who had not broken any law, many of whom were not even involved in the demonstration. No one in the neighborhood was safe from the lawless conduct of the D.C. police.”

Among those arrested were a retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel and his daughter, a Maryland grandfather who was detained for more than 24 hours, and a man who suffered from broken ribs after being knocked down by the police.

The arrests occurred on September 27, 2002 in Pershing Park, located on Pennsylvania Avenue two blocks from the White House. Arrestees were charged with failing to obey a police order, but no order to disperse was ever given and people who tried to leave were physically prevented from leaving, according to the ACLU complaint. The true purpose of the mass arrests, the ACLU said, was to disrupt and prevent peaceful political demonstrations scheduled for that weekend.

The lawsuit also charged that arrestees were unjustly detained for as long as 30 hours in tight handcuffs and painful wrist-to-ankle restraints, with limited access to food and toilets, and were denied access to lawyers and given false information about their legal options.

The ACLU lawsuit, which names as defendants D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey and officials in the District, seeks compensation for each person whose rights were violated and a court order prohibiting the government from using similar unconstitutional tactics in the future.

The case was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area, the National Lawyers Guild D.C. Chapter, and the law firm of Covington & Burling.

The lawsuit was filed as a “class action,” in which a few representative individuals sue on behalf of the entire group whose rights were violated. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit include:

  • Julie Abbate, a local attorney and graduate of Howard Law School who was observing the demonstration when she was trapped in Pershing Park and arrested.
  • Christopher Downes, a demonstrator who did not resist arrest but whose ribs were broken when he was knocked down by police.
  • Joe Mayer, a retired United States Army lieutenant colonel who accompanied his daughter to the demonstration, in part to be sure she didn’t get arrested. They were both arrested.
  • Mindi Morgan, a student at Howard University whose efforts to leave Pershing Park to get to her class were rebuffed by the closing net of police officers.
  • Tom Ulrich, a Maryland resident and grandfather who was trapped and arrested and detained for approximately 24 hours.

No date has yet been set for a court hearing.

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