Police must follow the rule of law

Judge Richard J. Sullivan, of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, made the right decision when he recently ruled that the New York Police Department illegally arrested large numbers of demonstrators at a protest in Lower Manhattan during the 2004 Republican National Convention. Yet, at the same time, Judge Sullivan upheld certain aspects of how the city handled the protesters’ arrests.

The case concerned a march that occurred on Fulton Street on Aug. 31, 2004, during which more than 200 protesters were corralled with orange nets and arrested. The lawsuit was filed by one group of protesters who were arrested but claimed false arrest. The ruling opens the doors for the city to potentially have to pay damages to more protesters who were arrested at this march.

The judge ruled that police, before making a mass arrest of this kind, needed to know that every individual involved had broken the law.  As Judge Sullivan put it in his decision, “The Fourth Amendment does not recognize guilt by association.”

Interestingly, the judge, at the same time, rejected the plaintiffs’ arguments that the city had violated the protesters’ First Amendment rights by not issuing them summonses and releasing them but instead by putting them through the courts, detaining and fingerprinting them, and then making them appear before a judge. Obviously, all these measures meant that the protesters were tied up in the legal system and not allowed to get back on the streets to try to keep disrupting the R.N.C.  The judge found that the no-summons policy passed constitutional muster because it was a response to a threat derived from intelligence sources that the demonstrators were trying to “shut down the city of New York,” and that the policy was only in place “for the brief duration the threat existed.”

In addition to this police conduct, or misconduct, during the R.N.C., many people also believe that the police, in more recent times, violated the rights of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators by making arbitrary arrests, physically suppressing them and otherwise using excessive force.

In the last year, the cops have corralled hundreds of O.W.S. protesters during mass demonstrations in Lower Manhattan. On Oct. 1, 2011, more than 700 protesters were handcuffed during a march to the Brooklyn Bridge. Most of them were charged with disorderly conduct, taken into custody and released the same day.

Many believe that the police trampled on the rights of demonstrators during the Nov. 15, 2011 eviction from the Zuccotti Park encampment.  During that raid, more than 20 credentialed journalists were among the estimated 200 arrested.

The Sparrow Project, an activist group in support of the O.W.S. movement, is now demanding the release of all police footage documenting the eviction of the protesters from Zuccotti Park. The group is also demanding that an independent agency undertake an investigation into the N.Y.P.D.’s overnight raid of the park and review the legality of the media blackout imposed that night by the city.

This plea echoes Congressman Jerrold Nadler’s request late last year for a federally sponsored investigation into O.W.S. arrests in Lower Manhattan and across the country. In the words of Nadler, “This city indeed has a duty to protect the health and safety of all those who live in work in Lower Manhattan, as well as their right to the quiet enjoyment of their community, but that duty must always be discharged with respect for the fundamental First Amendment right to free expression, and to assemble peacefully and petition government for redress of grievances.”

We, the citizens of New York, are all expected to obey the law — if we don’t, we are held responsible for our actions. It is about time that the police are held accountable for theirs.

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