Students hope to settle lawsuit with city

A recent settlement between the city and seven people who claim they were wrongfully arrested during a 2002 World Bank protest may bode well for several students taking similar action against District departments.

Last week, seven people who were arrested at the protest reached a settlement with the city, reportedly getting between $7,000 and $10,000 each. Seven GW students have filed a separate lawsuit against the city, the federal government and the Fairfax Sheriff’s Office, alleging they were wrongfully detained while attending a Sept. 27, 2002 protest in Freedom Plaza on Pennsylvania Avenue between 13th and 14th streets.

“This is a massive case that we are building against the government,” said Jonathan Turley, a GW law professor who represents the group of students. “The record in our case would fill a large-sized truck.”

Hundreds of others, including protesters and bystanders, were also arrested that day. Of the seven students suing the city, four were Hatchet and Cherry Tree staff members covering the event; three were GW law students acting as legal observers.

Metropolitan Police Chief Charles Ramsey and dozens of other police officers were on the scene when the order was given to close off the area and prevent anyone from leaving. Police failed to issue a warning to disperse, and protesters and bystanders were not given any fair notice that they were breaking the law, according to a 2003 MPD investigation of the incident. Nearly 400 people were handcuffed and moved en masse into custody, including “a great number of individuals who were not protesters,” Turley said.

The plaintiffs in the recently settled case “got damages and a handshake agreement” but received no admission of guilt from the city or police, Turley said.

Turley said there have been allegations of abuse following the arrests. He said at least one of his clients was “hog-tied,” chained wrist to ankle or made to remain in a very uncomfortable position for hours.

“One of our clients was forced to hobble to the phone with her wrist shackled to her ankle in order to make a phone call,” Turley said.

Officials from the Metropolitan Police Department and the mayor’s office both declined to comment about the allegations of Turley’s clients and the recent settlement. Tracy Hughes, a spokesperson from the D.C. Attorney General’s office, also declined to comment.

In 2003, following the release of the MPD investigation, D.C. officials conceded that while officers did not give adequate notification to protesters to disperse, they were correct in arresting individuals who they characterized as violent.

“Clearly credentialed press who were covering the protest should not have been arrested, but some people were clearly in violation of the law and deserved to be arrested,” Tony Bullok, director of communications for D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, told The Hatchet in October 2003.

U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, who approved the settlement in a hearing, said he was pleased with the decision.

“A real man can admit that problems can occur … that the arrests in this matter were flawed,” Sullivan told The Washington Post. “I think it’s a great agreement. I applaud it.”

Mike Hiestand, an attorney and legal consultant for the Student Press Legal Center, said he finds fault with the police conduct during the arrests.

“(Police) told (protesters) to do one thing and then arrested them for it,” Hiestand said. “The presumption is that most gatherings like this should be legal – that people should be able to peacefully gather and protest to make their views known.”

Turley is confident that his clients’ case will reap a more significant settlement than the case that was settled last week. He said that many parties involved “all but admitted to the violations” in their depositions and noted that he was surprised not to have received a settlement already.

Turley indicated that he and his clients are not going to give up if they do not receive an out-of-court settlement.

“We’re ready to go to trial,” Turley said. “We consider the previous offers by the government to be woefully inadequate.”

-Michael Barnett and Ryan Holeywell contributed to this report.

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