WASHINGTON (CN) - Individuals arrested during inauguration-day protests last year filed a federal class action complaint Friday against Metropolitan Police Department officials for failure to distinguish actual rioters from peaceful participants during a mass arrest.
According to the lawsuit, a police official in charge of handling civil disturbances during the protests declined to identify or apprehend the individuals smashing windows and vandalizing property, opting instead to declare a three-block march a riot.
Without discretion, officers used pepper spray, flash band and concussion grenades to sweep up hundreds of individuals who were marching down 13th St. NW in Washington into a cordoned-off area, the 31-page lawsuit says.
Some of the protesters were held for up to nine hours without access to a bathroom, food or water, according to the complaint.
Filing attorney Jeffrey Light says a pattern has emerged in Washington of mass arrests without individualized probable cause, which has prompted a number of class action lawsuits.
"It seems like they still haven't learned their lesson about what the law requires them to do in these situations," Light said in a phone interview. "The lawsuit is in part to ensure that in future cases the government adheres to the constitutional limitations of what they can do when they're faced with a situation like this."
Light added that he couldn’t see a legitimate reason for confining the protesters for so long, especially since transport vans were available.
"Their own standard operating procedures call for people to be released within four hours in situations involving mass arrests," Light said. "Maybe it's not always possible, but at least here it seems that there was an intentional delay to maximize the discomfort of those in the kettle."
Commander Keith Deville "knew that not all of the individuals who were marching were committing acts of vandalism when he declared the march a 'riot,'" the complaint says. "He was also aware that some of the individuals walking down 13th St., NW were journalists photographing the march or otherwise documenting the march."
According to the lawsuit, the individuals committing acts of vandalism were dressed in all black with masks covering their faces.
“Far from cheering the acts of vandalism, some individuals in the crowd shouted that the protest should remain peaceful,” the complaint says.
The lawsuit came the day after federal prosecutors dropped rioting charges against 129 protesters. Prosecutors are pressing ahead with cases against 59 other defendants.
Light said the timing of Friday's lawsuit was purely coincidental.
Light filed the complaint on behalf of lead plaintiffs Jesse Schultz III, John G. Baker and Alexander Contompasis. All three were arrested during the protests, but the charges against them were dropped several weeks later.
The lawsuit names as defendants the District of Columbia, Chief of Police Peter Newsham, Assistant Chiefs of Police Lamar Green and Robert Alder, Commanders Jeffery Carroll and Keith Deville, Lieutenant Paul Niepling, Sergeant Anthony Alioto, and Officers Michael Howden, Melvin Washington, Gregory Rock and Daniel Thau.
The lawsuit alleges false arrest, a First Amendment violation for targeting individuals for arrest without probable cause, and Fourth and Fifth Amendment violations for the conditions of confinement. The complaint also contains two counts of negligence.
The Metropolitan Police Department did not respond to an email sent after business hours seeking comment.
Schultz, Baker and Contompasis are asking the court to declare the conduct unlawful and to expunge the false arrest from the records of the class members. They are also seeking compensatory and punitive damages.
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