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City of NY to Pay Out Largest Settlement to Date for Violating Our Constitutional Rights

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This week, the City of New York agreed to pay $583,000 in compensatory damages and attorneys fees for the false arrest of 14 Occupy Wall Street activists on January 1st, 2012, in a federal lawsuit, Peat v. City of New York, 12-cv-8230, filed in the Southern District of New York on November 13, 2012.   The lawsuit alleged that the plaintiffs’ Constitutional rights to free speech and assembly were violated by their arrests.  This is the largest single settlement to date for an Occupy Wall Street-related civil rights lawsuit in New York.

The fourteen plaintiffs were arrested at 2nd Avenue and 13th Street in Manhattan during a peaceful march of Occupy Wall Street supporters.  At that location, police officers accompanying the march stopped the march from continuing forward and enclosed the marchers within police lines composed of scooter patrol officers and officers on foot.  High-ranking NYPD officers, including then-Chief of Patrol James Hall, Deputy Chief Theresa Shortell, Deputy Inspector Daniel O’Donnell, and Captain William Taylor were present at the scene and directly participated in making the arrests.

The plaintiffs were charged with blocking pedestrian traffic under Penal Law 240.20 (disorderly conduct).  The District Attorney’s office later declined to prosecute the criminal cases against the plaintiffs.

After the police stopped and encircled the marchers, Captain Taylor told the marchers that they were blocking the sidewalk and had to disperse.  Some marchers heard the order and tried to exit the area blocked off by the police.  Other police officers prevented many of them, including the plaintiffs, from leaving.  In addition to the plaintiffs, approximately 20 others were arrested, including citizen journalists and legal observers.

Garrett O’Connor, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, described his arrest:  “Captain Taylor personally prevented me from obeying his order, by stepping in my way and putting his hand on my chest when I tried to leave.  A few seconds later, I was on the ground with my face on the pavement and several police officers on top of me.”  Those arrested were held at the 9th precinct before being issued Desk Appearance Tickets and released.

“This systematic false arrest and misconduct by high ranking NYPD officers is a symptom of an institutional practice of chilling expressive speech activity and suppressing protest in New York City,” said Wylie Stecklow of Stecklow Cohen & Thompson.  “The police, led by supervising officers, stopped peaceful protesters on the sidewalk, surrounded them with a blue wall of police, told them to disperse, and then arrested them before they possibly could.  This was an unacceptable violation of basic constitutional rights perpetrated by the Bloomberg-Kelly NYPD.

David Thompson, a partner in the firm Stecklow Cohen and Thompson, said: “The facts of this case were sadly reminiscent of several other instances where the NYPD trapped a group of innocent protestors and arrested them.  The most famous of these is the incident on October 1, 2011, when NYPD officers led an OWS march onto the Brooklyn Bridge, and then boxed in and arrested almost 700 people.  That NYPD practice was developed to stifle peaceful protests, and it has to be stopped.  My hope is that cases like this one will help to do that.”

“I’m glad we were able to stand up for our rights and show the NYPD that the law applies to them, as well,” said O’Connor. “Now I hope there will be an investigation into the police tactics used against the Occupy Wall Street movement.”

Stecklow Cohen & Thompson is a boutique civil rights law firm in Manhattan.  The firm was founded in 1995 by Wylie Stecklow.  Samuel Cohen, also a partner in the firm, is currently Chair of the Civil Rights and Liberties Committee of the New York County Lawyers’ Association.

This statement comes from Lawyers for the Rest Of Us.

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