On September 1, 2009, 32 Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the United States District Court for Minnesota, against the City of St. Paul and six police officers employed by the City of St. Paul, Ramsey County, and Minneapolis. Plaintiffs, represented by private counsel, asked for $50,000 in damages and injunctive relief, claiming Defendants violated their First Amendment right to free speech and Fourth Amendment rights by arresting them without probable cause and using excessive force.
Specifically, plaintiffs allege that on September 1, 2008, the first day of the Republican National Convention (RNC), law enforcement officers trapped 200 people, including plaintiffs, in downtown St. Paul. Officers deployed chemical irritants and non-lethal ammunition against these people, herding them into a park. Officers did not give a dispersal order or allow people to leave. An officer announced that everyone was under arrest, officers handcuffed everyone they thought were protesters, and allowed everyone else to leave. Seven plaintiffs were detained and then released, and the other plaintiffs were taken into custody and released within 72 hours, all charges were eventually dismissed. Plaintiffs sued on behalf of everyone arrested in the Park and on behalf of the sub-class of people subjected to chemical irritants and concussion grenades while being herded toward the Park. Plaintiffs styled their complaint as a class action but did not seek class certification.
Plaintiffs alleged that the City of St. Paul designed and implemented a policy of isolation and containment of protesters during the RNC and authorized officers to arrest protesters without probable cause and use excessive force against protesters. Plaintiffs alleged some Defendant officers ordered the mass arrest, other defendants authorized and directed the use of excessive force against plaintiffs and others, and one defendant officer allegedly used excessive force against plaintiffs and others. Police arrested all of the plaintiffs and used force including chemical irritants and batons on some of the plaintiffs.
On September 29, 2010, the District Court (Judge Paul A. Magnuson) dismissed the claims against one officer after the parties stipulated to the dismissal. On October 28, 2010, the District Court (Judge Paul A. Magnuson) granted Defendants' motion for summary judgment. The court found that (1) defendant officers did not falsely arrest Plaintiffs because detaining everyone in the park for a short period was necessary given the behavior of the group and Defendants attempted to separate innocent individuals and only booked those they believed had engaged in illegal activity, (2) Defendants did not violate Plaintiffs' First Amendment rights because violent protest, including throwing rocks and feces, is not protected speech and Plaintiffs did not establish that police were retaliating against them for their speech, (3) even if Defendants fired smoke bombs, they did not use excessive force because the officers thought the crowd was turning into a riot, (4) the City of St. Paul was not vicariously liable for the officers' actions because the officers did not violate Plaintiffs' constitutional rights and the City's decision to clear the downtown of all civilians was constitutional. Bernini v. St. Paul, No. 09-02312, 2010 WL 4386888 at *1 (D. Minn. Oct. 28, 2010).
On January 13, 2012, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals (Judges Steven M. Colloton, Raymond C. Clevenger, III, and William Duane Benton) affirmed summary judgment against all defendants. The court found that the police did not violate the rights of: (1) the sixteen plaintiffs present at the intersection who police arrested at the park, (2) the seven plaintiffs the police detained and then released at the park, and (3) the nine plaintiffs not present at the intersection who were arrested at the park: Defendants reasonably could have concluded the group had committed crimes including third degree riot and unlawful assembly, the group was acting as a unit, and the group intended to break through the police line in order to access downtown St. Paul.
The officers directed the protesters to the park because they could not arrest the people at the intersection. During this walk, additional people became intermingled with the original group, some of whom were detained or arrested. The court held that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity for seizures of these people as well. The officers released 200 people, including seven plaintiffs, because the officers thought they were not part of the original group. The court held the officers did not violate the rights of the seven plaintiffs they released.
The police acted reasonably toward the nine remaining plaintiffs who were arrested even though the plaintiffs alleged they were not present at the intersection. The court held the police acted reasonably because the police believed these plaintiffs had been part of a unit gathered to enter downtown.
Furthermore, the court held the officers' use of force was reasonable because the officers believed the crowd intended to penetrate a police line and access downtown St. Paul. According to video footage, some people would not leave the roadway, so the officers' use of non-lethal munitions was reasonable. Moreover, plaintiffs did not identify any defendant who used gratuitous force. The court found that although protesters were engaged in protected speech, when protesters moved toward the police in a threatening manner and began to block traffic, their actions were no longer protected under the First Amendment.
Finally, the Court of Appeals affirmed the grant of summary judgment against the City because Defendant East Area Commander did not have final policymaking authority. Bernini v. St. Paul, 665 F.3d 997 (8th Cir. 2012).Shira Gordon - 03/03/2012