Court Issues Major Victory to Protesters in RNC Litigation

On September 30, 2012, in Dinler v. City of New York, the Southern District of New York issued an opinion that largely favors the protesters who filed suit for alleged police abuses during the 2004 Republican National Convention.

Significantly, the Court rejected the Defendants’ theory of “group probable cause”, and affirmed the requirement of individualized 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, 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 Fourth Amendment does not recognize guilt by association.

Applying this rule, the Court rejected Defendants’ arguments that the police had probable cause to arrest a number of protesters (for, for example, obstructing traffic), because it could not be said that all members of the group were engaging in said unlawful conduct.  The Court also found issues of fact as to whether the police “made sufficient efforts to clear innocent bystanders from the street before placing those that remained on East 16th Street under arrest”.

It also found that the City’s “blanket” fingerprinting policy did not comply with New York’s Fingerprinting Statute (CPL § 160.10):

Because Defendants have not presented any grounds for reasonable suspicion that the protestors’ identification documents were or would be inaccurate, the Court has little difficulty concluding that the Fingerprinting Policy violated Section 160.10(1). That provision’s plain language does not permit the state to suspend ordinary enforcement of fingerprinting laws at whatever time, or with regard to whatever group, the state sees fit. To the contrary, Section 160.10(1), on its face, provides for an individualized determination as to the likelihood that the identification given was inaccurate. Defendants concede that they did not engage in such an individualized process. Accordingly, the Court finds that the Fingerprinting Policy adopted during the RNC violated Section 160.10.

Furthermore, it held that there is a private cause of action under that statute for “wrongful fingerprinting”.

However, the Court did not agree with the protesters on every point.  For example, it found that the City’s “no summons” policy – under which RNC protesters would be subject to arrest, rather than be given a summons (even for minor offenses) – met constitutional scrutiny.  Citing the specter of “mass chaos”, the Court reasoned:

The City was not required to engage in an ineffectual game of tag, in which protestors could stop traffic, get a ticket, and proceed to their next rendezvous for further disorder. The No-Summons Policy was tailored to this well-founded fear of recidivism, which could have rendered normally minor infractions highly disruptive and potentially dangerous.  Accordingly, the Court finds that the No-Summons Policy was narrowly tailored to address the unique challenges associated with hosting a four-day national political convention.

The decision ends with a plea to the parties to resolve this long-standing dispute.  Regardless of the interests in bringing this case to a close, this case is likely to shape the manner in which inevitable civil rights claims arising in the context of politically-charged demonstrations are litigated.

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