A U.S. District Court judge ruled yesterday that the NYPD unlawfully arrested and fingerprinted hundreds of protesters during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City.
U.S. District Court Judge Richard Sullivan found that the NYPD acted unlawfully when it carried out mass arrests of demonstrators at two protests during the convention. He also ruled that the NYPD’s decision to fingerprint arrested protesters was unlawful.
“We’re gratified that the judge rejected the city’s claim that the NYPD has the discretion to engage in mass arrests when officers observe individual unlawful activity,” New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman said in a release. “This ruling is a victory for the right to protest — a core democratic principle.”
The 2004 convention was nearly a decade ago, but the ruling highlights some important information about mass arrest and fingerprinting policies — namely the fact that arrests must be made on individual cases of probable cause.
“An individual’s participation in a lawbreaking group may, in appropriate circumstances, be strong circumstantial evidence of that individual’s own illegal conduct,” Sullivan stated in his decision. “But, no matter the circumstances, an arresting officer must believe that every individual arrested personally violated the law. Nothing short of such a finding can justify arrest.”
The first protest in question happened on August 31, 2004, when a group of demonstrators from the War Resisters League planned a march from the World Trade Center site to Madison Square Garden where they would stage a “die-in,” at the RNC convention, according to Sullivan’s decision.
The protesters didn’t have a permit, but an NYPD official gave them the go ahead, over a bullhorn, to march two by two along city sidewalks en route to their destination. He informed the protesters that anyone caught obstructing pedestrian or street traffic could be subject to arrest.
Video of the protest shows that the demonstrators mostly abided by the officer’s instructions as they made their way along Fulton Street. In fact, it was mainly journalists and photographers who were guilty of blocking sidewalk traffic during the march.
Regardless, a different NYPD official halted the demonstration shortly after it began because he didn’t like the amount of space one of their banners was taking up on the sidewalk.
And without time to correct their behavior, or instructions that all the protesters could hear, the official announced that the more than 200 demonstrators would be arrested for obstructing traffic, parading without a permit, and defying police orders.
Not only did the protesters appear to be marching peacefully, but they were actually given official permission to proceed with their protest. They also weren’t given any time to correct the behavior that the second official decided was unlawful, Sullivan found.
The second protest in question occurred later that night and was far more rowdy; a group of protesters at Union Square decided to take to the middle of Union Square East, without a permit, in order to march, sit, chant, sing, and dance in protest of the convention.
The police formed a blockade, which forced the marchers to proceed up East 16th Street, which was less crowded. An NYPD official ordered the protesters to stop, but later admitted that his orders likely went unheard.
Unlike the earlier protest, many of these protesters were clearly acting unlawfully, and intentionally demonstrated in the middle of the street. The police boxed the protesters in on both ends of East 16th Street, initially from curb to curb, but as the march advanced, the police blocked off both sidewalks — preventing anyone from leaving.
The police moved most of the demonstrators onto the sidewalks, and continued to give inaudible commands to leave the area. A number of the plaintiffs who were arrested said they attempted to leave the area but didn’t know how. Some said that they weren’t trying to take part in the demonstration at all, and were just observing or merely passing by.
Eventually, every individual left on the block was arrested for obstructing the sidewalk. Although the court agreed that a large number of individuals were acting unlawfully, it was clear that not everyone there was — and that police did not have probable cause to arrest each and every individual in the area.
As far as fingerprinting went, the NYPD gave itself the authority to fingerprint individuals arrested in connection with RNC-related protests. The NYPD said that the decision was made in part based on intelligence it gathered which said that many protesters intent on committing unlawful acts had been instructed not to bring ID with them to demonstrations and to provide a fake identity to a medical institution if they needed treatment for an injury.
So instead of receiving summons tickets, many arrested individuals were fingerprinted to confirm their identities. Evidence shows that the majority of individuals who were fingerprinted did in fact possess valid identification. And the court ruled that NYPD failed to apply the practice on an individualized case-to-case basis.
Sullivan also ruled that the law unfairly directed specifically at RNC protesters and groups with certain viewpoints.
Read Sullivan’s full decision to find out more.