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D.C. to Settle Controversial Neighborhood Checkpoint Suit

PCJF: “We wanted to end the program, and we did”

Reprinted from Legal Times

Three residents who sued the District over the city’s controversial neighborhood checkpoint program are expected to receive $3,500 each to settle claims that the police initiative violated constitutional rights, according to court papers filed Thursday.

The suit, filed in June 2008 in Washington federal district court, challenged the constitutionality of the checkpoint program, which the Metropolitan Police Department has since abandoned. The program was set up in 2008 in the Trinidad neighborhood in Southeast in response to violence there.

A lawyer for the District, Ellen Efros, and an attorney for the plaintiffs, Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice, signed the settlement agreement Thursday.

“We wanted to end the program, and we did,” Verheyden-Hilliard said Friday. She called the case one of the most critical civil rights cases in the country. The plaintiffs’ lawyers believed the law enforcement program would have become a model for police departments around the country had the program succeeded in the District.

The District said it will pay “reasonable” legal fees, which the plaintiffs’ lawyers estimate at $700,000. If the lawyers are unable to reach an agreement, the plaintiffs will file a fee petition in court. Efros declined to comment.

D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles this afternoon called the settlement a good deal for the city. “We don’t need the checkpoint. We can handle the problem in other ways that are consistent” with earlier court rulings. He said the city will negotiate with the plaintiffs’ lawyers for attorneys fees.

Under the terms of the agreement, the three remaining plaintiffs, Caneisha Mills, Linda Leaks and Sarah Sloan, will each receive $3,500 in compensatory damages. The settlement amount, which comes from District funds, must be paid within 60 days of the execution of the agreement.

The District must also expunge all data gathered during the checkpoint programs. That information, currently under seal at the courthouse, cannot be accessed or used absent a court order.

During the checkpoints, District police barred dozens of motorists from entering the neighborhood when the motorists failed to provide sufficient information about travel plans in the area. A group of residents sued the city in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seeking an injunction. That effort was denied.

In July 2009, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit unanimously rejected a trial court ruling in the case that favored the District. The appeals court revived the litigation in a decision that said the Neighborhood Safety Zone program was unconstitutional.

Lawyers for the District failed to convince the entire appeals court to rehear the case.

Earlier this year, Judge Richard Leon denied the proposed certification of a class in the case against the District. The plaintiffs’ lawyers proposed certification of two classes. One class included all District residents with a valid driver’s license. The other proposed class included all motorists who had been stopped during Neighborhood Safety Zone program.

Verheyden-Hilliard said the key issue about class certification was not about damages but about data collection, which was resolved through the settlement. The plaintiffs’ lawyers had a pending motion for reconsideration of Leon’s class certification ruling.