A group of people who were arrested last summer during anti-police brutality protests in downtown Phoenix have filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court, alleging that they were wrongfully arrested en masse without probable cause.
On May 30, 2020, people gathering in downtown Phoenix to protest the recent murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and other instances of police brutality. They were met with overwhelming and brutal force by the Phoenix Police Department. Officers shot at protesters with rubber bullets and other munitions, "chased them down," and arrested 124 people on felony rioting charges, per the complaint. Police officers allegedly used the same probable cause statement to justify all of the arrests, but all of the cases were tossed by judges during first-appearance hearings.
"Peaceful protests were declared unlawful without cause, immediately and/or without a reasonable time to comply with orders to disperse followed by mass, indiscriminate deployments of tear gas, pepper spray, pepper balls, rubber-coated bullets, and beanbag rounds," the complaint states. "That night, police rounded up and arrested 124 people just for being in downtown Phoenix. Many of these people were held for hours in poorly/unventilated transport vehicles without access to water or restrooms."
The lawsuit, which was filed this morning against the city of Phoenix, Police Chief Jeri Williams, and two officers with the department, accuses the city and the police department of excessive force, stomping on the protesters' First Amendment rights by retaliating against them, and initiating "malicious" arrests and criminal proceedings in violation of the Fourth Amendment. A number of allegations are levied strictly against the city as well, including defamation, invasion of privacy, committing a "civil conspiracy," and gross negligence. The 124 people who were arrested that night "make up the class" for the lawsuit.
"They were just grabbing people either for participating in First Amendment activity that they didn't like or simply being in downtown Phoenix after 11 or 12 p.m.," Steve Benedetto, an attorney with the People's Law Firm who is one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs in the case, told Phoenix New Times. "The problem is they were arresting people without probable cause. The reason the probable cause statement was copied-and-pasted was because they had no probable cause."
"The judges at these hearings dismissing cases was entirely unprecedented," he added. "I've never seen anything like it."
Sergeant Mercedes Fortune, a spokesperson for the Phoenix Police Department, referred Phoenix New Times to the city of Phoenix for comment. Dan Wilson, a spokesperson for City Manager Ed Zuercher, did not return a message.
Máxima Guerrero, a local community activist and one of the plaintiffs in the case, was among those 124 people who were arrested by Phoenix police. Guerrero, who has legal status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, was placed into deportation proceedings after she was detained but was subsequently released after community outcry.
"The incident exposed the risk for anyone who has been coming out for a really long time to exercise their First Amendment rights here in Phoenix," Guerrero said at a press conference earlier today. "It further exposed how these agencies collaborate together, exposed how they abuse our human and civil rights, and the extent to which they are prepared to attack our communities."
"This needs to stop. We deserve to live and we deserve to voice our opinions about how the police do not keep us safe and how policing needs to be abolished without being attacked by the same system that we are protesting against," Mimi Arrayaa, co-director of Black Lives Matter Phoenix Metro, said at the press conference. "I was there last summer ... I was chased down in the streets like an animal and had pepper balls thrown at me by police officers for saying that my Black life matters."
The complaint also features an image of the probable cause statement that was allegedly copy-and-pasted by Phoenix police. The statement refers to the general activities of the protesters, rather than any specific individual, and accused them of vandalism and throwing bottles and fireworks at police officers.
"In front of police headquarters, they began throwing incendiary devices, including fireworks, at the line of police officers wearing Phoenix police tactical uniforms and gear," the statement reads. "They continued looping throughout the downtown area, lighting small fires, throwing bottles and rocks at officers and damaging windows and spray painting multiple buildings, roadways and sidewalks."
The lawsuit accuses high-ranking officials in both the Phoenix Police Department and the agency's Tactical Response Unit, which responded to the May 30, 2020 protests, of green-lighting the strategy of mass, indiscriminate arrests. The police defendants "undoubtedly were aware of and authorized the PPD officers’ plans to 'round up' protesters, or perceived protesters," the complaint states.
One of the defendants, Lieutenant Benjamin Moore who is also the "Field Force Commander" of the Tactical Response Unit, authorized the "indiscriminate use of force against largely non-violent demonstrators," the lawsuit states. And Sergeant Douglas McBride, who is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, similarly authorized the department's crackdown on the protesters that night. Chief Jeri Williams is accused of failing to discipline any officers for their role in the events of May 30.
The plaintiffs are seeking damages, as well as a "a permanent injunction" that bans the city from engaging in similar "unconstitutional behaviors" in the future and orders the city to revamp its policies to ensure a similar incident doesn't happen again.
Update: Dan Wilson, a spokesperson for the city manager's office, wrote in an email just after publication of this article that the city will "review the allegations in detail." He also wrote that the city is "committed to the safety, security and constitutionally protected rights of all its residents and visitors" and that a firm called 21CP Solutions has been hired to "conduct an independent review examining Phoenix Police policies and procedures related to public demonstrations."
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