City Desk

Breaking: District Settles Pershing Park Case

Peter Nickles

D.C. AG Peter Nickles has reached a settlement in one of the two remaining Pershing Park cases. The deal, which came together last night, includes a District payout of approximately $8.25 million to the roughly 400 plaintiffs in the Barham class action lawsuit.

The deal mirrors the recent settlement in the historic Becker case in which demonstrators had alleged false arrest and mistreatment by D.C. Police. Like the Becker case, the plaintiffs in this Pershing Park case would receive about $18,000 each.

The plaintiffs in the Pershing Park case had alleged that on Sept. 27, 2002, they were rounded up in the park, falsely arrested as well as improperly and needless detained. You can read their original compliant [PDF].

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, co-founder and attorney with the Partnership for Civil Justice, who represented the plaintiffs in the case, believes the settlement is a clear statement against police misconduct. She tells City Desk:  "This settlement sends an unmistakable message to law enforcement agencies throughout the country: think twice before shredding and subverting core constitutional rights."

The settlement includes much more than the $8.25 million District payout. It addresses the problems that have dogged this case long after the Sept. 27 mass arrests: the missing and or/destroyed evidence and the OAG and MPD General Counsel's embarrassing delays in handing over thousands of pages of relevant documents.

We will have more on this very soon.

The settlement stipulates that D.C. Police Department and the Office of the Attorney General must take steps to insure that similar discovery abuses do not happen in the future. The District has agreed to several such steps:

*The D.C. Police Department and the Office of the Attorney General centrally log and index all materials connected in future mass demonstration cases.

*The District must fund a document management computer system that would log evidence.

*The District must safeguard and index and maintain D.C. Police Department command center documents and other essential materials such as the running resume, radio dispatches, and video evidence.

*Every six months for three years, the District must issue reports on its progress in these areas to Partnership for Civil Justice attorneys.

*The District must expunge the records for the more 1,000 people arrested in the Pershing Park and Becker cases.

There still remains one Pershing Park case—the Chang case—on the federal docket. Nickles had promised to settle that case as well.

Still one issue question remains unanswered: What happened to the missing running resume, the minute-by-minute accounting by police of their actions on Sept. 27, and the gaps in the radio dispatches turned over to plaintiffs?

For the last few years, the substance of the plaintiffs' complaint was never much in dispute. OAG lawyers and the plaintiffs attorneys filed motion after motion arguing over the missing evidence. In July, U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan compared the District's lawyers in the Pershing Park cases to the prosecutors in the Ted Stevens case. Sullivan essentially shamed Nickles for the OAG's conduct.

Early this month, Ret. Judge Stanley Sporkin issued his report on the missing evidence. Sporkin suggested that the running resume may have been destroyed on purpose. He called for an outside expert to review the radio tapes.

Plaintiffs attorneys in Barham first exposed the missing evidence and went a long way towards documenting the OAG's bungling and the missteps in the MPD's general counsel office. They found and deposed critical witnesses and thoroughly embarrassed city attorneys. Their own evidence gathering went well beyond the D.C. Council's investigation and the Pershing Park related lawsuits. It is unclear what more they could have dug up. There are limits to civil litigation.

Councilmember Mary Cheh and Police Union Chief Kristopher Baumann have called for federal law enforcement to open up an investigation.

"I think it's going to be very important that the department and the attorney general's office and the general counsel's office not be allowed to buy their way out of whatever inappropriate non-ethical actions they've taken," Baumann tells City Desk today. "I still think that it's critical that the Department of Justice conduct a criminal investigation. I don't see how we can repair our reputation with the public or the courts without such an investigation. Clearly there are attorneys and high ranking officials that have violated the law—that should lose their jobs, lose their law licenses and possibly go to jail."

The plaintiffs lawyers in the Chang case have a filed motion asking for such federal involvement.

It is now up to Judge Sullivan to make the next move.  The next hearing in the Chang case is this Thursday.

Read our interview with two plaintiffs about the settlement.

*photo by Darrow Montgomery.

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  • Eric C. Anderson

    Great work, PCJ. Really, really great work.

  • Arlington Aaron

    Indeed. The non-monetary stuff looks pretty spectacular, and could actually make a difference in how the city deals with this in the future. Here's hoping that Chang stays on long enough to pressure a Federal investigation.

    Pretty strong words from Baumann there too. Wow.

  • Simon

    Again -- way to go, Mara! It's been a HELL of a good year for you!!!

  • Q!

    Hooray. Unfortunately the settlement proceeds and other costs will come off the backs of us LAW ABIDING citizens. Dollars to doughnuts (bad pun) this could've been settled for less and sooner if MPDC and the OAG weren't so incompetent and gave up the documents. They dragged this case out unnecessarily.

  • DB

    Of course this whole ordeal was insane and wrong.

    But at my office, we're talking about how we'd be gladly arrested, detained, hogtied, held in a cramped cell, and have the hassle of bogus charges for $18,000. I'd even take getting roughed up a bit, as long as no one uses the plunger on me. I'm free next Tuesday, frankly.

    But as to whether this will happen again... the non-monetary stuff is irrelevant. As soon as DC hires someone else who cares about order more than people's liberty, then the mass arrests will happen again. And if people are employed who believe in cover-up and evidence destruction and obstruction of justice, the lawsuit of such magnitude will happen again.

  • Wrack

    Perfect timing: bury the story under the gay marriage vote! Oh, you sly sly mayoral machine...

  • joan

    yea? so how much is Ramsey going to have to pay out of his own pocket? How about Mayor Williams? Maybe the plaintiffs should take title to his condo at Senate Square.

  • Comrade Al Gonzales

    These plaintiffs were wimps. They should have held out for punishment for Ramsey. What a bunch of craven dogs.

    This settlement is a piece of shit. These plaintiffs' lawyers are wimps as well. There is nothing on finding fault here.

    Would you post the settlement pdf file please? I bet the District denies all fault. Or maybe it makes some sort of bullshit admission, but nothing the same league as the brutality DC cops practice.

    These plaintiffs were wimpy craven dogs of bastard descent. If I believed in religious superstition I'd pray they go straight to Hell.

    Nothing has changed. The next protest, watch me - I'll be videotaping DC cops with no badges or ID beating the shit out of kids dressed in black.

    Nothing has changed.

  • Angry Al Gonzales

    Cowardly, craven wimpy plaintiffs + wimpy lawyers = bullshit no-fault settlement.

  • Comrade Al Gonzales

    This settlement says, beat the shit out of kids, hogtie them, destroy evidence, then toss a few thousand dollars to them eight yeas later.

    No way will any cop or any police department give two shits about this case. The police won this case.

    These plaintiffs are just like cheap whores. Here's a few dollars, now leave.

    The police are just tougher than the wimpy kids. & the city's lawyers are about 1000% times tougher than the plaintiffs' lawyers.

  • Angry Al Gonzales

    HUGE win for Pete Nickles! He's got balls the size of Texas -wimpy plaintiffs lawyers lost big time.

  • Jason Cherkis

    Angry Al: Here is what the Partnership stated in its press release:

    After more than seven years of class action litigation, the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund today is pleased to announce a victorious settlement on behalf of a class of nearly 400 persons who were arrested in Pershing Park in September 2002.

    On the morning of September 27, 2002, the D.C. police department, working with the U.S. Park Police, encircled Pershing Park, refused to let anyone leave and then arrested and hog-tied peaceful demonstrators, tourists, passers-by, and legal observers. Many were held bound wrist to ankle on a police gym floor for upwards of 24 hours.

    The settlement totaling approximately $8.25 million will provide for eligible arrestees to receive about $18,000 each. There are also equitable relief provisions in the settlement. The PCFJ and the District also recently reached a $13.7 million settlement involving a class action on behalf of nearly 700 persons mass arrested in April 2000.

    These settlements are believed to be the largest mass arrest settlements in the history of the United States. Lead counsel on the class action cases are Carl Messineo and Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, co-founders of the PCJF.

    The Pershing Park case received national and international media attention after it was revealed by the PCJF attorneys that the Metropolitan Police Department and the Office of Attorney General had engaged in widespread destruction and withholding of evidence. In the course of extensive litigation and discovery, PCJF attorneys uncovered and exposed that the running resume, which is a comprehensive log of police activity on the day of the arrest, had been destroyed. The destruction included not only the database and electronic backup but at least a dozen hard copies of the information. PCJF attorneys also uncovered that segments of taped audio transmissions, known as radio runs, were deleted. The data missing was from the time the arrests were being ordered and executed.

    Presiding U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan called the discovery misconduct in this matter the "civil equivalent of the Ted Stevens case."

    The District itself commissioned an investigation by former Federal Judge Stanley Sporkin whose recent report expressed being "particularly disturbed" by the purging of evidence and stated, "We have no way of knowing whether this was an act of intentional mischief or reflects a benign action. We do not believe it was the latter."

    The settlement of the Pershing Park case, Barham, et al. v. Ramsey, et al. (Case No. 02-CV-2283), comes on the heels of the settlement of the similar illegal mass false arrest and hog-tying of nearly 700 persons in April 2000. The settlement in Becker, et al. v. District of Columbia, et al. (Case No. 01-CV-811) totals $13.7 million as well as equitable relief provisions. The PCJF attorneys represented the class during the nearly ten years since the arrests. Both of these mass false arrests occurred under the direction of former D.C. Chief of Police Charles H. Ramsey, now Police Commissioner for Philadelphia and recent appointee to the Gates Commission.

    Last month, the District settled the case of eight protestors (Bolger, et al. v. District of Columbia, et al.) who were arrested on April 20, 2002. In this landmark case, the arrestees, who were never prosecuted for the false arrests, were politically targeted by law enforcement in part based on the black clothing that some were wearing. Following their arrests, they were interrogated about their political beliefs by a secret intelligence unit of the FBI. The District was hit with sanctions for its discovery misconduct in that case, including its efforts to withhold the running resume. PCJF attorneys represented the plaintiffs.

    Equitable Relief

    In addition to the monetary terms, the District will change certain policies and practices as part of the settlements of these two class actions.

    Equitable relief provisions include: The MPD and OAG are required to centrally index and log all materials collected and reviewed in demonstration cases, a measure calculated to create an audit trail that will prevent future acts of evidence destruction; funding is established for document management software to be used to log and index evidence; new mandatory requirements for the preservation, indexing maintenance of the integrity of the command center running resume, radio runs and video recorded evidence; and ongoing obligations to report to PCJF attorneys every six months for the next three years on the implementation of these measures. There are additional training and accountability requirements for police personnel including requirements for training on lawful standard operating procedures in the context of First Amendment protected assemblies and mass demonstrations and additional obligations when the MPD obtains the assistance of outside law enforcement agencies for demonstration related duties. The records of the over 1,000 persons falsely arrested in these two class actions will be expunged and the arrests declared null and void.

    The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) is a not-for-profit legal and educational organization which, among other things, seeks to ensure constitutional accountability within police practices. The PCJF recently won a unanimous ruling at the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals finding the MPD's unprecedented military-style police checkpoint program unconstitutional. It is counsel on the still-pending Frucht case in which police assaulted demonstrators during a permitted April 2003 anti-war march in Washington, D.C.. The PCJF previously uncovered and disclosed that the D.C. police employed an unlawful domestic spying and agent provocateur program in which officers were sent on long-term assignments posing as political activists and infiltrated lawful and peaceful groups. For more information go to:

  • Jason Cherkis

    I don't think a pdf of the settlement is available. I will check with U.S. District Court.

  • Simon

    You hear that, Angry Al: LARGEST mass arrest settlement EVER. This is not a win for the city, it's a HUGE win for Mara et al. They correctly calculated that 8 million is the biggest settlement they could get, and therefore continuing to litigate the case would only spend more of the plaintiffs' money and they'd get less $$$ per person.

    DB, your reaction is precisely why Mara et al. want to settle this case instead of take it to trial: if they end up with a jury full of DB's, they can win the case and still end up with a recovery of far less than 8 million.

    And you'd better believe that this will affect Chief Ramsey: from now on, any jurisdiction thinking about hiring him will think twice about hiring an "eight million dollar man" (i.e. someone whose actions cost the city eight million big ones).

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  • Jason Cherkis

    Nickles told the Associated Press that the District did not have to admit any wrongdoing as part of the settlement.

  • Anonymous

    "Nickles told the Associated Press that the District did not have to admit any wrongdoing as part of the settlement."

    Excellent reportage, Jason. My hope for the District is that we only have to endure one more year of this appalling conduct and attitude.

  • Comrade Al Gonzales

    Liberal cunts don't know what winning is. If you have a man down, stick a blade between his ribs & twist it until he gurgles & stops breathing.

    Unbelievable chicken shit kindergarten bullshit.

  • Comrade Al Gonzales

    If the Little Rock Seven had been this cowardly, "colored" schools would still be alive & well throughout the South.

    Maybe there will be one plaintiff who isn't a cheap whore & refuses the few dollars DC is throwing at him. If so, he should know that these lawyers have to continue to represent him until he can find some lawyers with balls.

  • Comrade Al Gonzales

    "DC admits no fault". Thank you, Jason, excellent reporting here.

    DC admits no fault. It throws a few dollars to a few whores. Nothing changes.

  • Angry Al Gonzales

    Unbelievable. No fault. Just a few dollars for a few whores. DC & Pete Nickles win big time.

  • Angry Al may be retarded

    I prefer to call him "special." Just don't judge him too harshly.

  • Jason Cherkis

    I'd like to see what the plaintiffs' response is to Nickles' "no fault" comment.

  • Fish

    Uh, they shouldn't have any response to the "no fault" comment, as THEY AGREED TO A SETTLEMENT wherein the District admits no fault.

  • Jason Cherkis

    Fish: In a previous Pershing Park settlement, Chief Ramsey agreed to send a letter of apology to each plaintiff. So sometimes, even in this case, the District may be required to admit fault. The settlement agreement hasn't been formalized. So I'd like to hear what the plaintiffs lawyers say about Nickles' comments.

  • Comrade Al Gonzales

    Yep, "no fault" so DC wins this case. Look at it this way - I punch you the face & kick you when you're down. Eight years later I admit no fault, take some money from Jason, & give it to you. Who won?

    I got to beat the shit out of you, admit no fault, & had to pay nothing, since I took the money from Jason to pay you. You get a few dollars. Who won?

    There's no difference here. DC cops admit no wrongdoing, & take a little money from DC taxpayers & toss it to the punks. The money involved is peanuts in the overall DC budget, or even compared to the MPD budget.

    Liberals are too fucking stupid, cowardly, & naïve to know what winning is. Exhibit A, Barack Obama.

  • Angry Al Gonzales

    Do you know what a communist is? A liberal with balls.

    Liberals are too fucking stupid, cowardly, & naïve to know what winning is. Exhibit A, Barack Obama.

  • Simon

    Um... the whole point of a settlement is that no-one admits they were wrong. But one side is PAYING eight million dollars, and the other side is RECEIVING eight million dollars. In a capitalist country, that says a hell of a lot more than any letter of apology. It's really clear to me that Angry Al has never been involved in a civil lawsuit in any meaningful capacity (other than maybe getting evicted or something).

  • 1intheKnow

    In all of the back-and-forth ranting about who "won" in this settlement, there are 2 things left out that are troubling me:

    1. Once again, the attorneys for the plaintiffs are coming away with the really big payout. At $18,000 each for 400 plaintiffs (those figures are approximations, but the only ones we have), that still leaves more than $1 million for the attorneys. Doesn't seem like an equitable distribution to me....

    2. All of these horrible cases - and, don't get me wrong, I totally agree that MPD acted wrongly - arose out of situations where outside folks came into DC to protest an entity that is not part of DC (the US Government's war activities, the World Bank, etc.) Why should MPD put itself on the hook - at the risk of huge liability, as shown by these cases - for combatting these protests? It seems to me that, in these situations, the feds should pony up the law enforcement, via the National Guard or whatever it takes.

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