Free Speech Claims|Against LAPD Tossed

     LOS ANGELES (CN) — While some LAPD officers may have threatened and intimidated a homeless advocate who protested efforts to clean up Skid Row, their actions didn’t reflect a department policy of restricting advocates’ free speech, a federal judge has ruled.
     The Community Action Network, which also refers to itself in the lawsuit as LA CAN and Cangress, accused the LAPD of systematically violating the First Amendment rights of its members as a means of deterring the group from advocating for homeless rights in the infamous Skid Row section of Los Angeles.
     Cangress frequently protests the city’s Safe Cities Initiative, a program started in 2006 which calls for a larger police presence downtown. Cangress calls the initiative a front for officers to harass, interrogate and issue citations to people who live on Skid Row.
     The suit claimed LAPD officers routinely block Cangress members from videotaping the routine sweeps of homeless camps in Skid Row, prevent them from attending public meetings, publish untrue allegations in official police communications and continually threaten members with arrest for protesting the program.
     Deborah Burton, a 62-year-old member of Cangress, also claimed the LAPD, the Downtown Industrial Business Improvement District, the Central City East Association and its executive director, and the LAPD lieutenant in charge of the Safe Cities Initiative harassed and intimidated her during a 2011 protest of an event called the Skid Row Walk, where police officers walk through the camp areas.
     During that walk, Burton protested by using an air horn that Central City East Association executive director Estela Lopez claimed damaged her eardrums.
     Burton was later arrested by the LAPD and charged with battery, relating to the discharge of the air horn. This led to the suit by Cangress and Burton involving First Amendment violations, malicious prosecution of Burton, retaliation, use of threats and intimidation against Burton and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
     But in a ruling issued March 22 and codified by a final judgment this past week, U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson found for the defendants on nearly every claim brought by Burton and Cangress.
     Wilson said the claims against the police department in particular failed to meet the necessary standards to demonstrate systematic civil rights violations.
     “While it is clear that Cangress actively complained about perceived police harassment, complaints alone are not sufficient to establish a municipal custom,” Wilson said in the 23-page ruling.
     Cangress failed to provide sufficient evidence connecting the assorted incidents of conflict between it and the police into a coherent department-wide effort by police to suppress speech, Wilson said.
     “Though plaintiffs ask the court to infer that the denial of some Cangress members was because of their speech, there is no evidence that the refusal to let some Cangress members inside some buildings on certain occasions was tied to disapproval of their viewpoint,” Wilson said.
     He also found for Lopez and the city associations on Cangress’ First Amendment-related claims, since Cangress failed to demonstrate they had worked to deny its constitutional rights.
     As for the Burton’s malicious prosecution claims, Wilson said the LAPD acted appropriately when they filed charges against Burton, since a court denied her motion for acquittal — meaning a reasonable juror could have found enough evidence existed to find her guilty.
     Burton was eventually acquitted of the battery charges against Lopez.
     However, Wilson denied Lopez and the city associations’ request for summary judgment on Burton’s claims of using threat and intimidation, and of intentional infliction of emotional distress and the prayer for punitive damages without comment in the ruling.
     Cangress did not return a phone call requesting comment, but on Tuesday filed notice of appeal to the Ninth Circuit.
     The group is represented by Barbara Schultz of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, who did not return a phone call requesting comment by press time.
     The Community Relations Department of the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office did not return a voicemail seeking comment by press time.

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