DC Settles Trump Inauguration Protest Lawsuits For $1.6 Million

Washington, D.C. – On Monday, D.C. officials agreed to pay to resolve lawsuits filed over police brutality and mass arrests during Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration on January 20, 2017. Two separate lawsuits brought against D.C. Metropolitan Police (MPD)one filed by the D.C. ACLU in June 2017 and another filed by attorney Jeffrey Light in January 2018have now been settled.

People arrested and/or subjected to police violence on January 20, 2017, can reportedly expect payouts between $4,000 – $5,000. The lawsuits’ factual claims, which D.C. officials settling the cases are not contesting, include that MPD officers violated the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments, as well as D.C. law.

The D.C. ACLU lawsuit sought damages “for violations of plaintiffs’ constitutional rights to free expression, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, and due process, andclaims for assault and battery, false arrest and imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and violations of the D.C. First Amendment Assemblies Act.”

MPD’s unconstitutional guilt-by-association policing and excessive force, including the use of chemical weapons, not only injured our clients physically but also chilled their speech and the speech of countless others who wished to exercise their First Amendment rights but feared an unwarranted assault by D.C. police,” D.C. ACLU Legal Director Scott Michelman said in a statement posted online on Monday.

The contrast between the over-policing of constitutionally protected speech on Inauguration Day 2017 and the under-policing of a violent invasion of the U.S. Capitol earlier this year starkly demonstrates law enforcement’s institutional biases. A diverse group of protestors with a left-wing message was subjected to a mass arrest without cause, whereas armed white insurrectionists with a right-wing message stormed Congress, and the police let them walk away.

D.C. ACLU Legal Director Scott Michelman

Throughout protests against Trump’s inauguration on January 20, 2017, D.C. police used copious amounts of flashbang grenades, pepper spray, and other weapons against protesters, members of the media, and bystanders. According to the D.C. ACLU lawsuit, among those pepper-sprayed by cops that day was a 10-year-old child.

Over 200 people were surrounded and arrested by police at 12th & L streets after officers stopped and detained the entirety of an anti-capitalist and anti-fascist march after some businesses’ windows were broken. (Some of the march participants were able to break through police lines and flee to avoid arrest.)

Part of the case against MPD was based on the ‘Conditions of Confinement’ of people caught up in the mass arrest. Those arrested were detained for up to 11 hours without food, water, or access to restrooms or medical care.

According to a complaint, one officer refused when a detainee asked to be able to use a restroom, saying she should “shit [her] pants.” Another officer reportedly told a J20 detainee, “If you wanted to go to the bathroom, you shouldn’t have gotten arrested.

The complaint also describes how detainees were forced to rummage through garbage bins to find bottles to urinate in. Officers also threw away food as they laughed at detainees who had been denied food for hours, and taunted them as they went through the trash to find leftovers to eat.

MPD had vans ready to take away arrestees at 11:30 a.m., but processing of detainees was deliberately delayed “in order to maximize the detainees’ discomfort,” with some people held outdoors in the cold until after sunset.

Some arrestees also reported being sexually assaulted by police who subjected them to “intrusive, humiliating, and unjustified” cavity searches, according to one of the lawsuits.

While several arrested journalists had their charges dropped in the following weeks, most of those arrested were dragged into a lengthy and punitively stressful criminal court process. (A small number of defendants took plea deals instead of going to trial.)

The January 20 (‘J20’ for short) defendants were subjected to invasive search warrants, with many of their social media posts and private cell phone messages and emails being displayed in court. Prosecutors Jennifer Kerkhoff and Rizwan Qureshi from the D.C. US Attorney’s office claimed that everyone at the protest was involved in a felony criminal conspiracy because they didn’t leave when windows were broken. Membership in groups such as the labor union Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was cited as evidence of involvement in the alleged conspiracy.

Two trials of arrested protesters and street medics (with one arrested journalist also tried along with them) ended in acquittals and/or mistrials, with no convictions delivered by either jury. After repeatedly failing in court, prosecutors eventually dropped all the remaining charges in July 2018. Before the case was thrown out, each individual J20 defendant faced up to 80 years in prison.

Previous to the charges being dropped, D.C. District Court Chief Judge Robert Morin hit prosecutors with a rare sanction for a ‘Brady Violation’ after it emerged that MPD Detective Gregg Pemberton (a pro-Trump police union official) illegally hid evidence from the court that could have exonerated protesters.

The practice of unconstitutional mass arrests, carried out by police who expect to be sued and know their governments will pay to settle the lawsuits, can be expected to continue. The habit was in place before January 20, 2017, and has continued to be practiced by D.C. Police post-2017, despite a D.C. law passed in 2004 prohibiting mass arrests without individualized probable cause.

More than $40 million in taxpayer money has been paid to settle D.C. police misconduct lawsuits since 2016, according to the Washington Post.

Former D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham, one of the defendants in J20 lawsuits, was previously named in a lawsuit settled for $14 million over illegal mass arrests of over 400 protesters during an International Monetary Fund (IMF) summit in 2002. Last summer, D.C. police under Newsham’s command, also conducted mass arrests of protesters taking the streets in solidarity with George Floyd. The ACLU has also filed a suit over those arrests, which has yet to be settled. Newsham has since left D.C.’s MPD and last November took a new job as police chief in Prince William County, Virginia.

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