Police Trampled Civil Rights During 2003 Free Trade Protests in Florida, ACLU Charges

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
November 17, 2005 12:00 am

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MIAMI – The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida’s Greater Miami Chapter today filed three lawsuits charging that officers of the Miami, Miami-Dade and Broward police departments used excessive force to intimidate and unlawfully arrest innocent bystanders and protesters who were exercising their free speech rights during the November 2003 Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) ministerial meetings in downtown Miami.

The three lawsuits filed today – on the two-year anniversary of the FTAA summit – are on behalf of a former Miami New Times reporter, four labor union members and a college student from Massachusetts whose skull was fractured after police hit him in the head three times with a baton. All six ACLU plaintiffs were arrested on November 20, 2003, during marches that resulted in hundreds of arrests after police used unnecessary force to disperse crowds.

“The ‘Miami Model’ was a police tactic designed to intimidate political demonstrators, silence dissent, and criminalize protest against the government policies,” said ACLU Greater Miami Chapter President Terry Coble, referring to the City of Miami’s law enforcement strategy during the FTAA meetings. “If this type of police action is allowed to continue, our country will have lost one of our most basic rights, and we will be on the road to a totalitarian government.”

The plaintiffs in today’s cases were among thousands of people who came to Miami to observe or participate in lawful demonstrations to protest FTAA trade policies. Despite the overwhelmingly peaceful nature of the gatherings, police officers arrested approximately 300 people, most of them for minor offenses such as disorderly conduct and failure to obey a lawful command. Hundreds of people were held in local jails for more than 24 hours. The charges against virtually all of those who were arrested were later dismissed, the ACLU said.

Working under the overall command of Miami Police Chief John Timoney, officers from the City of Miami, Miami-Dade County and the Broward Sheriff’s Office made extensive plans to militarize the police force in an attempt to limit demonstrations. According to news reports, police officers from more than three dozen law enforcement agencies converged on downtown Miami to create an almost surreal backdrop that included armored vehicles on the ground and helicopters dotting the skyline above. The police marched in lines wearing full riot gear and wielding batons, tear gas, pepper spray and beanbag rifles to control the crowds of demonstrators.

The first lawsuit, Lorne Battiste, et. al v. Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne et. al., alleges that a deliberate plan to stifle dissent, along with poor communication and training by police officers, contributed to the unlawful arrests of: Lorne Battiste, of Miami, a staff representative with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; Laura Winter, of Pittsburgh, Penn., an administrative assistant with the United Steelworkers (USW); Ricky Hamblin, of St. Paul, Minn., a maintenance worker with the USWA; and Luis Cardona, of Chicago, Ill., a labor union activist affiliated with the USW.

The ACLU lawsuit charges that all four union members were arrested and falsely charged with disorderly conduct, despite the fact that they followed police orders to disperse after a skirmish broke out between police and other protesters two blocks south of the Bayfront Park Amphitheater. The union members received conflicting orders from three different police departments representing the City of Miami and Miami-Dade and Broward counties as they were returning on foot to their hotel. All three departments were assigned to cover various different security “zones” in the downtown area.

Laura Winter, 39, said she tried to explain to the Broward Sheriff’s officers that she was following orders from Miami and Miami-Dade police officers. But she was still handcuffed and jailed for 20 hours.

“The police used intimidation and fear to basically shut us up,” said Winter, who returned to Miami from Pittsburgh to participate in an ACLU news conference today. “When I asked them why they were arresting us, they replied that they were simply following orders and proceeded to handcuff me and force me face down into the grass. At that moment, it felt like I had no rights; they had complete power to suspend my rights for the sake of what they called ‘security,’ but in reality they were the ones causing all of the violence and problems.”

The second case, Owaki v. City of Miami, et al., involves the severe beating of college student Edward Owaki, of Amherst, Mass. Owaki, 19, joined other college students in a peaceful demonstration that was cut short when police officers decided to order everyone to flee the area near Northeast Third Street in downtown. The officers used tear gas, batons and shields to push the protesters toward Biscayne Boulevard. Owaki, who turned around to follow police orders to disperse, was then struck from behind three times with a police baton. He was beaten so severely that his skull was fractured, and he fell unconscious. Owaki, an Eagle Scout who had never before been in trouble with the law, was arrested for “disorderly conduct” and then transported to Jackson Memorial Hospital. He was given Tylenol and then taken to the Miami-Dade County Jail, where he spent the night. Owaki suffered from pain and vomiting and a nurse at the jail noted that he was dehydrated. Owaki was released from jail late the next day and his friends took him back to Jackson because he was disoriented and in severe pain. He was admitted to intensive care and spent nine days in the hospital while being treated for a skull fracture, cerebral contusions and seizures.

The third lawsuit, Delgado v. Miami-Dade County, stems from the unlawful arrest of Celeste Fraser Delgado, a reporter who was covering the demonstrations for the Miami New Times. She was walking with four demonstrators near the intersection of North Miami Avenue and 20th Street, and was confronted by four Miami-Dade police officers who jumped out of a squad car and ordered all of them to get down on the ground. They all immediately complied. Delgado told the officers she was a reporter, and showed them her identification badge. They handcuffed her anyway, and forced her to lie down on the ground for more than an hour. She was frisked while still on the floor, and then arrested for “failure to obey a lawful command” – a charge that was so clearly fabricated that several police officers even objected to including the false charge on the arrest form, the ACLU said. Delgado was transported to the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center, where she spent the entire night barefoot because officers had removed her boots. The charges against Delgado were dropped the next morning.

“By ignoring press credentials and arresting reporters who were not officially embedded, Miami-Dade County police violated the freedom of the press and deprived the public of crucial information about what actually happened during the FTAA protests,” said Delgado, 38, who lives in Northeast Miami-Dade and now works as a senior marketing editor and writer for Barry University.

This is the second round of lawsuits filed by the ACLU challenging the unjustified and unprovoked use of force by police during the FTAA protests. The ACLU filed the first FTAA-related lawsuit in September 23, 2004 on behalf of Carl Kesser, an independent filmmaker who was shot in the head by police with a beanbag rifle.

The ACLU alleges in all three lawsuits that the actions of City of Miami, Miami-Dade and Broward Sheriff’s officers violated the rights of demonstrators, specifically the First Amendment right barring the government from unreasonably interfering with people’s rights to engage in political demonstrations and other expressive activities, and the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits the police from using unreasonable and excessive force.

“Despite the pride that Mayor Manny Diaz and Police Chief John Timoney have taken in the ‘Miami Model,’ trampling on the constitutional rights of demonstrators in order to make downtown peaceful during the FTAA meetings was not a successful police operation,” said Howard Simon, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. “Police officers failed to fulfill law enforcement’s two equally important duties – ensuring the safety of the community and at the same time protecting everyone’s constitutional rights. As a result, taxpayers in several South Florida communities will now be required to compensate people from around the country for the violation of their constitutional rights.”

The labor activists are represented by ACLU Greater Miami Chapter Legal Panel Chair Ray Taseff, ACLU cooperating attorney Greg Samms and ACLU South Florida Staff Counsel Rosalind Matos. Delgado is represented by ACLU cooperating attorney Benjamin Waxman, and Owaki is represented by ACLU cooperating attorney John de Leon.

Lorne Battiste, et. al v. Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne et. al. is on-line at: www.aclufl.org/issues/police_practices/battistecomplaintfinal.pdf

Owaki v. City of Miami, et al.,is available at: www.aclufl.org/issues/police_practices/OwakiComplaint.pdf

Delgado v. Miami-Dade County is available at: www.aclufl.org/issues/police_practices/Delgadocomplaint.pdf

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