Police Trampled Civil Rights During Republican National Convention, NYCLU Charges

Affiliate: ACLU of New York
October 7, 2004 12:00 am

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NEW YORK–The New York Civil Liberties Union today filed two federal lawsuits against city officials here, charging that the Police Department’s indiscriminate mass arrests during the recent Republican National Convention violated the civil rights of lawful and peaceful protesters as well as bystanders and observers.

The NYCLU lawsuits, which are the first cases filed over police practices during the convention, specifically challenge the mass-arrest tactics, the lengthy detentions in a filthy bus depot, and the systematic fingerprinting of people arrested for minor offenses.

“The police practice of arresting lawful protesters, bystanders and observers during the RNC and holding them for days at Pier 57 was a flagrant violation of their rights,” said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the NYCLU. “New Yorkers need to find out the source and nature of these troubling policies and to make sure these unlawful practices do not become the norm for handling demonstrators. The detention of arrestees for days before seeing a judge or getting a desk appearance ticket smacks of punitive preventive detention.”

The cases arise out of two mass arrests that took place on August 31, one near Ground Zero and the other near Union Square. Yesterday, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office announced it would be dismissing all charges filed against the 227 people arrested near Ground Zero, four of whom are plaintiffs in one of the NYCLU lawsuits. The announcement followed the NYCLU’s request that the district attorney’s office dismiss the charges based on reports from its monitors on the scene and a real-time videotape of the entire demonstration and arrests.

Hundreds of thousands of people came to New York to participate in lawful demonstrations during the Republican National Convention between August 26 and September 2. Despite the overwhelmingly peaceful nature of the gatherings, the Police Department arrested more than 1,800 people, most of them for minor offenses such as disorderly conduct and parading without a permit. Because the Police Department deployed mass-arrest tactics — such as mesh nets to trap groups of people on sidewalks — police officers ended up arresting many people who were engaged in lawful protest activity or who were not even demonstrators. The department then held hundreds of people for more than 24 hours, with many of them spending long periods of time in a filthy bus depot at Pier 57.

“The entry of fingerprints in government databases is a fundamental invasion of privacy that can have lifelong consequences and violates state law. The NYPD should not use minor offenses as an excuse to fingerprint political activists, and its practice of doing so must stop,” said Christopher Dunn, Associate Legal Director of the NYCLU. “Along with these lawsuits, the NYCLU is calling on the police department to destroy all fingerprints unlawfully gathered during the RNC.”

The first lawsuit, Schiller v. City of New York, challenges police practices used against a group of anti-war protesters who had assembled near the World Trade Center for a march to Madison Square Garden. Soon after the group began to march along the route they had previously negotiated with police along the sidewalk, nearby officers stopped the procession. Without giving people any meaningful opportunity to disperse, police officers surrounded and arrested more than 200 people standing on the sidewalk, including people not even participating in the event. Pursuant to the district attorney’s October 6 announcement, all charges against these arrestees will now be dropped.

The second case, Dinler v. City of New York, stems from an August 31st demonstration in Union Square Park where protesters had gathered carrying signs and playing drums. A small group left the park gathering area and proceeded across Union Square East onto East 16th Street. Police then sealed off both ends of 16th Street (at Union Square East and at Irving Place) and refused to allow those trapped on that block to leave. Many of those trapped between the police lines had been walking lawfully on the sidewalk, and some had not even been following the demonstrators, but were simply caught in the crowd when the police sealed the block. Without giving any audible order to disperse, the police then began systematically arresting people on the block.

Following these and other arrests, people were taken to Pier 57, where they were searched and held in overcrowded and filthy conditions for long periods of time. The NYPD made no meaningful efforts to facilitate their processing and many people were not released until a court ordered the city to do so.

The NYCLU is seeking a declaration that these practices and policies are unlawful and is seeking injunctions requiring the return of fingerprints and other records associated with the arrests.

The NYCLU is bringing these lawsuits in conjunction with the Civil Rights Clinic of New York University’s School of Law. The law students working on the cases are David Billings, Alicia D’Addario, Jesse Devine, Alison Page, Matthew Popowsky, and Christina Shay.

For a copy of the complaints and a list of plaintiffs, go to www.nyclu.org.

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