Does Occupy Philly have a case against city over 2011 arrests?
Twenty-six members of Occupy Philly arrested two years ago after their eviction from Dilworth Plaza are suing the city. They’re claiming their First Amendment Rights to free speech were violated when the city arrested them early on the morning of November 30th, 2011.
The evidence? All 26 protesters were later acquitted for charges of blocking a highway, failure to disperse and criminal conspiracy.
It was not the first or last time many affiliated with the local Occupy movement were arrested for supposed violations related to the protest.
Filed by Center City lawyers Paul J. Hetznecker, Lawrence S. Krasner, and Lloyd Long III, the suit names Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, Police Capt. William Fisher (who was present at the time of the arrests, and announced the initial eviction from Dilworth Plaza via loud speaker), Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel and numerous police officers on the scene at the time of the arrests as defendants.
Two years later—to the month—this is the sort of thing that may bring the movement back into the spotlight, even if for just a moment. But the real question we should be asking is, is this suit — and others like it — valid?
“Of course they are,” says Jennifer Kinsley, a professor of law at Northern Kentucky University and the former president of the First Amendment Lawyers Association. “That’s one way of vindicating violations of First Amendment civil rights, filing a suit of this type.”
Typically, “you have a first amendment right to speak your mind,” she says, “and you especially have that right when you’re in a public place and a public forum. If a person is arrested solely for First Amendment expression in a public forum, that can create a wrongful arrest claim.”
Then there are the suits filed by Occupy protesters in other cities. “The more precedent that there is for getting damages for people who are arrested, the stronger the claims become in the cases,” Kinsley adds.
If we’re to look at what happened in other cities, Occupy Philly’s probably got a case.
Occupy Philly is far from the first faction of the national movement to sue over their eviction.
In late 2012, Occupy L.A. sued the city of Los Angeles, claiming the group’s First Amendment Rights were violated during the conviction. That suit claims the LAPD used “shock and awe” tactics during the raid and eviction.
An Occupy D.C. member, who claims his possessions were taken and destroyed when that encampment got raided in February 2012, is suing the federal government on Fourth Amendment grounds.
And courts are hearing the cases
The federal government attempted to dismiss a lawsuit from Occupy D.C. member David Bloem, who claims in Bloem v. Unknown department of Interior Employees that he lost his belongings when the National Park Service cleared McPherson Square in 2012.
He says he lost “a tent and display that included a green indoor/outdoor carpet, a blue tarp, a baby stroller, a tent case, a six-inch-high white plastic fence, and six garden stones stenciled with ‘Occupy DC’ and children’s footprints” during the eviction.
The federal government filed a motion to dismiss the case, earlier this year, and U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg denied the motion.
And Occupiers are winning
Earlier this year, in April, the city of New York agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by members of Occupy Wall Street, whose property was destroyed when the NYPD raided Zuccotti Park, also in November 2011.
The group had originally sued over the books in the park library which were destroyed during the raid. When the city settled, it was for the books ($47,000) and $186,350 in lawyer’s fees and costs.
The suit was settled for $365,000.
They’re winning on merits
When New York City settled the suit, Occupy Wall Street’s lawyers made sure they had some specific language in writing.
“We had asked for damages of $47,000 for the books and the computers, and we got $47,000,” said Normal Siegel, who represented OWS in the suit. “More important–we would not have settled without this–is the language in the settlement. This was not just about money, it was about constitutional rights and the destruction of books.”
According to the Village Voice, Siegel is referring to this language in the settlement: “Plaintiffs and Defendants recognize that when a person’s property is removed from the city it is important that the City exercise due care and adhere to established procedures in order to protect legal rights of the property owners.”
So, while Occupy Philly is not suing over specific destroyed property right now, there may be some merit to the idea that their rights were violated.
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