12 New Yorkers file First Amendment suit against mayor, police commissioner

Friday, April 21, 2000

NEW YORK — A lawsuit filed today against New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Police Commissioner William Safir alleges that the arrests and detention of 12 protesters were in retaliation for exercising First Amendment speech and assembly rights.

The suit is based on arrests that occurred during a Feb. 28 demonstration at the New York City Police Academy to protest police brutality — one of many protests staged in New York in recent months. Specifically, the demonstrators rallied against the acquittal of four New York City police officers accused in the killing of Amadou Diallo and the later police killings of three other men, Gideon Busch, Malcolm Ferguson and Patrick Dorismond.

Filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, the suit alleges a practice of unlawfully holding people arrested during demonstrations and other alleged troublemakers for no cause.

‘The plaintiffs were falsely arrested and subjected to malicious abuse of criminal process and malicious prosecution and were otherwise subjected to an excessive and unreasonable and irrational seizure, detention, and imprisonment,’ the suit says.

A spokesman said the New York Police Department would not comment on the case until the department had fully studied the charges.

Attorney James I. Meyerson, representing the protesters, said police officials at the scene clearly violated established city policy and violated the civil rights of the arrested demonstrators under the U.S. Constitution, the Civil Rights Act of 1871 and the laws and constitution of New York.

‘They were retaliated against and punished for what we believe to be the exercise of constitutionally protected, First Amendment, speech activity,’ Meyerson said. ‘And the retaliation and punitive action took place by, if not the arrest itself, at least the processing through the system rather than the issuance to them of a Desk Appearance Ticket for a future appearance in court.’

Meyerson noted that the city generally deals with minor charges by allowing police to issue tickets, as in traffic violations, and then releasing the individuals for later court appearances — rather than holding them until the court appearance. He said the practice was established because it would be irrational to hold accused minor offenders until their court appearances when the charges would not result in jail sentences.

‘Therefore, the decision — and we believe the de facto policy practice and custom — to put people through the system and hold them in Central Booking is a retaliatory and punitive action and policy and custom,’ Meyerson said, adding that his clients were held from 22 to 28 hours.

‘There is clearly within the city of New York now, in our judgment at least, a practice to punish by putting people through the system when people are charged with an offense that arises out of protected speech activity,’ he added.

The suit alleges additionally that such actions have caused many people, including political and religious leaders, to fear that New York City police officers ‘are being propelled to take actions which violate the rights of citizens, all in the name of reducing crime and as the ‘price’ of doing the crime-fighting business.’

Further, Meyerson accused the mayor and police commissioner, the city’s principal policing policy makers, of basing such decisions on personal motives.

‘The practice and custom now exists [to punish] people who are engaged in free speech activity and assembly … that criticizes the mayor, the police commissioner and/or their policing policies and practices,’ he said.

Such a practice of retaliation, Meyerson charges, extends beyond protesters to situations in which ‘the mayor’s own personal sensibilities are offended’ — for example, the case of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. In that instance, Giuliani ordered that city funds be withheld in a controversy over artworks being displayed.

Documents filed today allege the Feb. 28 demonstration was not disruptive in any way, that protesters did not use obscene language, did not impede pedestrians or cars, did not obstruct access to any building, did not create hazardous conditions and did not resist arrest. They said marshals wearing yellow armbands were working to assure that the protest remained lawful and peaceful.

The plaintiffs charge that within minutes after the start of the demonstration, during which three people made short statements, Allan Hoehl, chief of patrol for Manhattan Borough South, who also is named in the suit, announced that the demonstrators and spectators should disperse. Many, the documents say, did not hear the announcement because it was not amplified. After a second warning, this time amplified, the plaintiffs charge, Hoehl ordered their arrest.

‘At no time did any of the plaintiffs or any other individual engage or attempt to engage in any kind of civil disobedience activities or other inappropriate, unlawful or wrongful conduct,’ the suit alleges.

Ten of the plaintiffs were arrested at the scene; two were picked up while walking away. All were taken directly to One Police Plaza. They were charged and held in custody in the Manhattan Central Booking Facility until they appeared in court the next day, Feb. 29, on various charges including disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Some charges were dismissed. Some of the plaintiffs were ordered to re-appear in court on April 4.

The suit asks the court to provide ‘appropriate remedies’ to redress the challenged policies and practices, an unspecified amount of both compensatory and punitive damages for some of the plaintiffs, and an injunction to halt the alleged police practices.