Activists accuse Baton Rouge officials of illegal arrests

By Taryn Phaneuf | Sep 1, 2016

BATON ROUGE — Pointing to news reports, cell phone videos and photographs, three people who were arrested during protests in Baton Rouge after the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling police are suing Baton Rouge officials and state police for civil rights violations, alleging police responded to protesters in a “militarized and aggressive manner.”

Sterling was shot and killed by Baton Rouge Police officers July 5. In the days after, protesters gathered to oppose police and call for an independent investigation of the incident and changes to police department’s policies.

They were met by police dressed in gas masks and riot gear and carrying assault weapons. Officers from Baton Rouge, as well as state police and the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office, allegedly pointed weapons directly at nonviolent protesters and journalists.

The plaintiffs in the the class action complaint, are DeRay McKesson, a prominent Black Lives Matter activist from Baltimore. Kira Marrero of Louisiana, and Gloria La Riva of San Francisco.


According to the complaint filed Aug. 4 in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana, about 185 people were arrested for obstructing the highway in violation of state law, the complaint alleges. But many people arrested were on sidewalks, the grass or in private homes. Though these charges were dropped, the arrested people were required to post bail and pay fees to have their records expunged. The complaint also says handcuffs were “excessively too tight,” leading plaintiffs to experience “pain, swelling, bruising and numbness.”

The lawsuit names the city of Baton Rouge and East Baton Rouge Parish, Mayor-President Melvin Holden, and the heads of three police forces.

Plaintiffs likely will have a tough time convincing a judge that police action was uncalled for, Peter Russell, a Gretna-based attorney and former police officer, told the Louisiana Record. He said videos clearly show not all protesters were calm and some targeted private property and attempted to block the interstate.

“They’re going to say police have to do what’s necessary to safeguard property and people’s lives. They’re going to say those tactics police used were appropriate,” Russell said.

He added that, to him, this looks like a frivolous claim brought by a private attorney.

“It’s one of those complaints where you throw everything and the kitchen sink to find something to win on,” he said. “This is a grab for attorneys fees, not so much a grab for justice.”

The complaint includes 16 causes of action. Beyond depriving the plaintiffs of their civil rights, the complaint alleges police conspired to deprive them of those rights, used excessive force, and arrested protesters without probable cause. It also accuses defendants of retaliation against the exercise of the freedom of speech and assembly, as well as excessive bond, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and assault and battery, among others.

In addition to damages, the complaints calls for relief, expunging and nullifying the arrests and the return of bonds and bail paid by plaintiffs.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana and other organizations filed a claim in federal court in July against officials for violating protesters’ First Amendment rights.

Russell said the ACLU is in it to change case law, rather than to profit off attorney fees. He also supports the fight against heavy-handed police responses to protests because of the way it affects people’s choice to exercise their constitutional right. Many people will choose not to show up because they’re afraid of getting arrested.

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