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Police Dodge Suit Over RNC Protest Crackdown

(CN) - Protestors who were arrested at the 2008 Republican National Convention cannot sue St. Paul, Minn., and its police officers, the 8th Circuit ruled.

On the first day of the convention, Sept. 1, 2008, at the Xcel Energy Center, protesters had swarmed the area and already caused some property damage. Trying to "re-establish" control after the marches with permits had concluded, a commanding officer closed off the downtown St. Paul area and stationed several officers on Shepard Road along the Mississippi River.

Since First Lady Laura Bush's motorcade was scheduled to drive down that road, police used rubber bullets and other nonlethal munitions to head the protesters west. As the hundreds of protesters retreated, they allegedly pelted the police with rocks and bags containing feces.

At a park about half a mile away, the police encircled the crowd, which had grown to 400, and announced they were under arrest. They then tried to weed out the protesters who had initially been at the intersection, taking 160 into custody. This group was released within 72 hours, and all charges were eventually dismissed.

In an ensuing complaint, however, 32 protestors claimed violations of their Fourth Amendment rights. Since only a handful of protestors may have been broken the law, it was allegedly illegal to arrest any in the massive crowd.

Relying on video footage of the protest, a federal judge dismissed the case on summary judgment. The St. Louis, Mo.-based federal appeals court affirmed last week.

Since the video shows that many protestors had gas masks and were yelling profanities and taunting the police officers, "a reasonable officer in St. Paul could have believed that the Fourth Amendment did not require a probable cause determination with respect to each individual in a large and potentially riotous group before making arrests ... and could have easily concluded that the group ... had committed a crime and the group was acting as a unit."

The three-judge panel also noted that the sorting process in the park resulted in the release of 200 people, including seven of the plaintiffs.

Because of the circumstances of the event, police also were justified in using stinger blast balls and other nonlethal ammunition, Judge Steven Colloton wrote for the court.

Protesters also failed to demonstrate that they were arrested in retaliation for exercise of free speech. "Although the protestors at the Shepard-Jackson intersection were engaged in protected speech, members of the unit moved towards police in a threatening manner and began to block off traffic along a major roadway," Colloton wrote.

The 15-page decision concludes by finding that St. Paul is not liable for the actions of Senior Commander Joe Neuberger, who ordered the downtown shutdown and stationed police on the motorcade route.

"The plaintiffs maintain that Neuberger did not have to obtain approval from any other official or governmental body before instructing his subordinates," Colloton wrote. "But that Neuberger had 'discretion in the exercise of particular functions does not, without more, give rise to municipal liability based on an exercise of that discretion.'"

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