City Still Hassles '04 RNC Protesters

Arrestees' lawyers trying to fend off subpoenas for e-mails, notes, photos.

The Republican National Convention took place almost four years ago, but the protesters arrested that August weekend are still fighting the city in court.

The legal fracas has generated an interesting side battle over the city's stubborn campaign to obtain internal records from a lawyers' group that represented many of the detainees.

The city's Law Department has sent four subpoenas to the National Lawyers Guild seeking e-mails and notes written by its members, a list of the lawyers who attended the protests, and videotapes and photographs.

Guild lawyers often attend mass protests to monitor them and offer free advice and representation to people arrested by the police. The group started doing it during the 1968 protests at Columbia University.

More than 1,000 people were arrested during the 2004 convention, many of them detained without charges for more than 24 hours.

Typically, a lawyer's notes and e-mails are considered sacrosanct because of the confidentiality of the lawyer-client relationship, a basic protection in the legal system. So the guild naturally contends that the city's tactic violates the First Amendment, drags out the dispute, and could scare legal volunteers from assisting members of the public in the future.

"Essentially, the city has no business seeking this stuff," says Danny Meyers, president of the guild. "It's a form of vindictiveness."

However, there's not just madness, but cleverness as well, behind the city's method of pouring taxpayer dollars into this fight. "It's an enormous waste of resources for the city and for our small organization," says Deborah Hrbek, a Manhattan lawyer who does pro bono work for the guild.

The subpoenas were sent in connection with a class-action lawsuit filed by Julia Cohen and other people scooped up by police during the convention. The guild is not a named party in the lawsuit. Initially, the city asked for the videotapes and photographs, and followed up with a demand for the e-mails.

A judge quashed the subpoenas, but the city appealed. That appeal is still pending. (Gail Donoghue, special counsel for the Law Department, declines comment on pending litigation.)

Meanwhile, the city sent the guild yet another subpoena, this one for all of the notes written by the guild's legal observers during the convention concerning the arrests. The city also asked it to produce someone to testify about the guild's evidence-gathering procedures and its training of legal observers, Boyle says.

The guild responded with another motion to quash the subpoenas. That issue is pending in front of a federal magistrate.

 
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