As of Friday afternoon, nearly all of the more than 1,800 people arrested during the Republican National Convention had been released. Now some of them might be getting $1,000 checks from New York City.
In an extraordinary move, a judge last night held the city in contempt for refusing to abide by his order to release some 560 people who had been detained without a hearing for up to 67 hours, most of them on minor violations. New York Supreme Court Justice John Cataldo slapped fines of as high as $1,000 per person for the city’s failure to release people by 5 p.m. on Thursday. A hearing is expected next week to determine how many protesters remained behind bars beyond the cutoff time, and whether the city will actually be forced to compensate them.
“I think this is the first time a major municipality has actually been held in contempt and possibly fined for violating the rights of demonstrators before their cases went to court,” says Daniel Alterman, one of the heavyweight lawyers—including Norman Siegel, Elizabeth Fink, and William Kunstler’s wife, Margaret Ratner Kunstler—who went to bat for the demonstrators.
City attorneys say fines are “inappropriate” and are expected to vigorously challenge them.
The judge had initially ordered the city to begin releasing people by 1:30 p.m. on Thursday. But city attorneys argued that the backlog caused by Tuesday’s roughly 1,300 arrests made it impossible for them to comply with a long-standing State Court of Appeals ruling, which generally requires the city to process detainees within 24 hours. City attorneys also complained that some protesters were gumming up the works by refusing to give their names—though police said only 61 people withheld their identities.
“We made every effort to process people as efficiently as possible, but the volume overwhelmed the system,” insists Gail Donoghue special counsel to the city’s lead attorney..
The threat of large fines seems to have loosened the wheels of justice: Between 6 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Thursday, about 600 people were released outside the court house at 100 Centre Street, where scores of worried family members and friends held vigil. According to Alterman, most were issued desk appearance tickets for minor violations like disorderly conduct, or arraigned for low-grade misdemeanors like obstructing traffic and resisting arrest. About 150 cases were outright dismissed. Several who invaded the convention itself were charged with inciting to riot, a felony.
Alterman accused the city of unlawfully detaining people to quell dissent: “We got numerous reports from people in jail, or from their parents and partners, that the cops were telling them they weren’t going to get out until George Bush got out of town.” City officials deny the charge, noting that 500 arrestees were let out before the court order.
The New York Civil Liberties Union—working with the National Lawyers Guild, Legal Aid, and the Center for Constitutional Rights—is now considering filing a lawsuit against the city. “There were hundreds of bad arrests, and the conditions and lengths of detentions were illegal,” says NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman. Citing the numerous bystanders, journalists, and clearly identified legal observers who were swept up in the street busts, Lieberman predicted: “The city is going to be picking up the pieces for what went wrong for a long time.”
Lieberman also criticized the city’s “excessive videotaping” of demonstrators, some of whom have been followed to their homes. “This isn’t about some innocuous documentation,” she said. “This is about videotaping to maintain political dossiers.” Police officials continue to insist they are not “spying” on demonstrators.
The National Lawyers Guild has set up a hotline number for people who were arrested to report when and how they were held: 212-679-6018.