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Victory in major class-action protest impact litigation

Class action impact litigation brought by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund on behalf of more than 1000 people including demonstrators, journalists, tourists and passersby led to major and substantive reform in police policies and practices in the handling of mass demonstrations in Washington, D.C. During the litigation, the PCJF successfully fought to end both D.C. and federal police department use of the “trap-and-detain” arrest tactic whereby the police would use police lines to suddenly surround and mass arrest entire groups of people in proximity to free speech activities.

IMF/World Bank protestors are backed into a corner and trapped by riot police who surrounded them in Pershing Park ( at 14th and E NW). The police arrested several hundred protestors at Pershing Park saying that they had no permit to gather there.

Two federal judges, called the outcome of the PCJF’s litigation “historic,” “critical” and “substantial reform,” and an achievement that would “protect future generations of protesters” in the nation’s capital. Lead class counsel were Mara Verheyden-Hilliard and Carl Messineo.

The outcome of the cases included not only more than $23 million in damages to persons whose constitutional rights were violated, believed to be the largest protest settlements in the history of the U.S., but achieved equitable relief changing how police operate. As part of the resolution of the case, the PCJF also ensured that records of the over 1,000 persons falsely arrested in two class actions would be expunged and the arrests formally declared null and void.

In addition, the PCJF worked to propose and secure enactment of the First Amendment Rights and Police Standards Act, hailed as a model that can be used nationwide. The Act proscribes the use of police lines to surround demonstrations; restricts police authority to order dispersal of protests; prohibits arrests for “parading” or demonstrating without a permit; and in circumstances where there may be probable cause for arrest, for civil disobedience for example, establishes a standard for release within four hours of non-violent protest-arrests; mandates provision of food and water to arrestees; prohibits wrist-to-ankle hog-tying; and requires police give arrestees written disclosure of their rights to speedy release from police custody; among other things.

As a result of coverup, document loss and destruction and tampering uncovered by the PCJF attorneys during the litigation, the cases also led to significant changes in record retention practices and the creation of an “audit trail” for documents in the police department and the Office of Attorney General, and spawned further investigation by the federal court.

The Pershing Park case received national and international media attention after it was revealed by the PCJF attorneys that the District had engaged in widespread destruction, loss and withholding of evidence. In the course of extensive litigation and discovery, PCJF attorneys uncovered and exposed that the running resume, which is a comprehensive log of police activity on the day of the arrest, had been destroyed. The destruction included not only the database and electronic backup but at least a dozen hard copies of the information. PCJF attorneys also uncovered that segments of taped audio transmissions, known as radio runs, appear to have been edited and erased. The data missing was from the time the arrests were being ordered and executed.

Presiding U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, called the discovery misconduct in the Pershing Park case the “civil equivalent of the Ted Stevens case.”

The District itself commissioned an investigation by former Federal Judge Stanley Sporkin whose report expressed being “particularly disturbed” by the purging of evidence and stated, “We have no way of knowing whether this was an act of intentional mischief or reflects a benign action. We do not believe it was the latter.”

In addition to the monetary terms, the District was required to change certain policies and practices as part of the settlements of these two class actions, Barham, et al. v. Ramsey, et al. (Case No. 02-CV-2283) (the September 2002 Pershing Park mass arrest case) and Becker, et al. v. District of Columbia, et al. (Case No. 01-CV-811) (the April 2000 mass arrest case).

Equitable relief provisions include: The MPD and OAG are required to centrally index and log all materials collected and reviewed in demonstration cases, a measure calculated to create an audit trail that will prevent future acts of evidence destruction; funding is established for document management software to be used to log and index evidence; new mandatory requirements for the preservation, indexing and maintenance of the integrity of the command center running resume, radio runs and video recorded evidence; and ongoing obligations to report to PCJF attorneys every six months for three years on the implementation of these measures. There are additional training and accountability requirements for police personnel, including requirements for training on lawful standard operating procedures in the context of First Amendment protected assemblies and mass demonstrations, and additional obligations when the MPD obtains the assistance of outside law enforcement agencies for demonstration related duties.

April 2000

On April 15, 2000, nearly 700 persons were arrested during a lawful and peaceful march on the first day of several days of protests against the IMF and World Bank. The police threw up police lines, prohibited anyone from leaving, and arrested everyone solely because they had engaged in First Amendment protected activity or because they were in proximity to free speech in the nation’s capital.

Children were handcuffed and taken away from their parents. Many arrestees were held on stifling buses for eight hours with their hands cuffed tightly behind their backs, not allowed to use bathrooms such that persons were forced to urinate on themselves. Many arrestees were taken to a police gym where they were hogtied wrist to ankle in stress and duress positions throughout the night.

Earlier that same morning, the police seized, raided and closed down the Convergence Center where protestors were meeting, holding trainings, making political artwork for the planned demonstrations and preparing food. Over the next two days, the police engaged in brutal beatings and other acts of violence against protestors. The PCJF also achieved settlements for eight plaintiffs who pursued individual claims from those actions.

Pershing Park

On the morning of September 27, 2002, the D.C. police department, working with the U.S. Park Police, encircled Pershing Park during a protest against the IMF and World Bank, refused to let anyone leave, violently advanced on the crowd, and then arrested and hog-tied peaceful demonstrators, tourists, journalists, passers-by, and legal observers. Just as in April 2000, many were held bound wrist to ankle on a police gym floor for upwards of 24 hours.

These two class actions are among many cases the PCJF has litigated nationwide defending the constitutional rights of protesters.