Lawsuit Challenges Unlawful Arrests and Restrictions by Tacoma Police at Port of Tacoma Demonstrations

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
September 24, 2009 12:00 am

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Suit Says Police Actions Aimed to Prevent Peaceful Protest


Anti-war activists are pursuing a lawsuit challenging Tacoma Police Department actions that violated their rights at demonstrations at the Port of Tacoma. The suit asserts police conducted unlawful arrests, imposed unconstitutional restrictions, used unreasonable force, and engaged in unauthorized surveillance in order to discourage and prevent peaceful protest.

The activists are represented by Larry Hildes of the Law Offices of Lawrence A. Hildes and by the ACLU of Washington, assisted by Evan Schwab and Nathan Alexander of Dorsey & Whitney LLP. The suit (McCarthy v. Barrett) is pending before the United States District Court in Tacoma.

“The right to protest peacefully is a time-honored right in our democratic society. Tacoma police overreacted to peaceful demonstrations at the Port and interfered with the right of people to dissent from actions by the government,” said Kathleen Taylor, Executive Director of the ACLU of Washington.

The suit arises out of the police response to demonstrations held in March 2007, one of several recent actions supported by the “Port Militarization Resistance” (PMR) movement. PMR is a grassroots coalition of individuals who oppose the use of area ports in the service of war.

The lawsuit was originally filed in March 2009 on behalf of three area activists who have participated in actions protesting the militarization of ports in the Puget Sound area. An amended complaint filed on September 21, 2009 adds three plaintiffs and asserts that police actions violated plaintiffs’ rights under both the United States and Washington State Constitutions.

The suit says that the Tacoma Police Department infringed on free speech rights by deliberately using excessive and unnecessary force, unduly restricting demonstrators to fenced-off “designated protest zones,” prohibiting them from carrying backpacks, and arbitrarily changing the rules about the demonstration.

Plaintiffs were arrested for “obstructing a law enforcement officer” and later prosecuted for disobeying a traffic officer for trying to enter a fenced-off designated protest zone while carrying their backpacks. The charges were dismissed by the municipal court and the dismissal was affirmed by the Pierce County Superior Court after the City appealed.

The rule prohibiting backpacks was one of numerous restrictions imposed by the Tacoma police over the course of several days of demonstrations at the Port. The police designated “protest zones” by using temporary fencing to cordon off demonstrators far from military vehicles which they were protesting. On several occasions, police deployed chemical weapons and fired rubber bullets on peaceful crowds in response to allegations of disorderly conduct by a handful of individuals.

Police refused to allow anyone to enter the fenced-off protest zones with a backpack or large bag. The restriction came after police reportedly found an abandoned backpack containing locks and chains, which they claimed demonstrators might use to chain themselves to vehicles or to each other in order to block military vehicles. However, the protest zones were far from the path of vehicles. And there was never any evidence that the backpacks plaintiffs or other demonstrators attempted to carry into the protest zones contained any illegal or dangerous items.

“The rule prohibiting backpacks in a fenced-off protest area provided no real security for people or property, and it severely limited demonstrators’ ability to have necessary items including food, water, and medications,” explained Larry Hildes, co-counsel for plaintiffs. “We strongly believe these steps were taken to make it as difficult as possible for plaintiffs to exercise their First Amendment rights, and to consign them to a location where they would be virtually invisible and inaudible to those their message was designed to reach. We object to the notion that protest can only take place in areas designated by the government for exactly these reasons.”

The suit also alleges that without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, Tacoma police engaged in surveillance of the plaintiffs and other peaceful anti-war activists, and shared information with other local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, including branches of the U.S. military. The surveillance included attendance at activist planning meetings, monitoring activists’ listservs, and collecting and monitoring license plate and other personally identifying information.

The lawsuit seeks to have the court declare that the policy prohibiting backpacks in “protest zones” and the surveillance of plaintiffs without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity violated constitutional rights. The suit seeks to have Tacoma police enjoined from conducting surveillance of individuals based on their involvement in lawful free speech activities or association with others engaged in lawful free speech activities.

The suit also seeks court-supervised training and regulations requiring the City of Tacoma not to adopt policies designed to suppress First Amendment rights, as well as damages for the violation of plaintiffs’ rights.

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