LOS ANGELES (CN) - A federal judge agreed with a "Food Not Bombs" protester who says she was falsely arrested as she passed out flyers and vegan burritos in front of a McDonald's in Long Beach.
U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson found that Maura Cotter's Fourth Amendment rights were violated when an officer arrested her for obstructing a public passage, a misdemeanor of which she was found innocent.
Cotter is a member of "Food Not Bombs," an all-volunteer grassroots movement formed in 1980 during the protests at Seabrook Nuclear power station in New Hampshire. The movement, with autonomous chapters in 500 cities in the United States alone, shares free vegetarian food to protest war and poverty.
Cotter and two other members of "Food Not Bombs" were peacefully protesting against a McDonald's on Long Beach Boulevard by passing out flyers, giving passersby free vegan burritos and holding a 5-by-3-foot banner - on a 26-foot-wide sidewalk.
The McDonald's manager called Long Beach police to complain that the protesters were disturbing his business by telling customers not to eat at McDonald's and giving out free food.
Police officers took pictures of the protesters and asked for their identification, allegedly to check for warrants. Cotter was arrested, allegedly for failing to show the officers identification, though she says she showed them her Illinois driver's license at the scene.
She was taken to the police station and charged with a misdemeanor for obstructing a public passage. She was found factually innocent and granted an order sealing the records of her arrest.
She sued Long beach and three of its officers under the First, Fourth and 14th Amendments. Pregerson on Friday granted her summary judgment on her Fourth Amendment claim for false arrest.
Long Beach argued that defendant Officer Armand Castellanos had probable cause to believe Cotter was blocking the sidewalk because he saw her holding the banner across the sidewalk and learned from the McDonald's manager that her group was trying to dissuade passersby from eating at the restaurant.
But whether Castellanos believed that Cotter was trying to stop people from eating at McDonald's "has little bearing on whether she was physically obstructing pedestrians' travel on the sidewalk," Pregerson wrote.
Based on evidence provided by both parties, Pregerson found that the group and the banner were "not even arguably hindering public passage."
"A photograph taken by Officer Castellanos himself, and therefore reflective of the circumstances known to him at the time of the incident, clearly indicates that the protesters and their sign occupied less than half the width of the sidewalk, and that pedestrian traffic was minimal," Pregerson found.
The sidewalk was 26 feet wide - significantly wider than a typical sidewalk - and the protesters' sign was only 5 feet wide, the judge pointed out.
"Indeed, the photographic and video evidence shows that the sidewalk was wide enough to accommodate two police cruisers parked side by side, while still leaving enough space in between for a tree and for pedestrians, including at least one pedestrian with a stroller, to proceed without a sliver of obstruction," Pregerson wrote.
Under these circumstances, no reasonable person could conclude that Cotter was blocking the sidewalk, he said, granting Cotter summary judgment on the false arrest claim.
Attorneys did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.
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