No Disturbance, No Disturbing the Peace
Six years after Lindsey Huthnance was arrested for “disturbing the peace," a jury has declared that she never actually did.
But the case, which took years to build, took the jury only nine days decide. On March 26, the U.S. District Court awarded Huthnanth $97,500 in compensatory and punitive damages for false arrest, emotional distress, and a violation of her First Amendment rights.
What exactly happened? The Blog of Legal Times explains it thusly:
According to her complaint, Huthnance had stopped inside a 7-Eleven around midnight when she spotted a group of officers inside. After asking the officers if any incident had happened in the neighborhood and, according to her complaint, receiving a rude response, Huthnance made a comment that she didn’t think it was a good use of her tax dollars for the officers to be standing around the 7-Eleven.
After that, she was arrested—for disturbing the peace, the cops claimed, but Huthnance thought it was more like for criticizing the police.
So once she was released, Huthnance contacted the American Civil Liberties Union. From there, John Moustakas, Jeff Skinner and Andrew Hudson of Goodwin Procter LLP agreed to take the case pro bono. And it turned out that her case was difficult—but mostly because it was so hard to gather the paperwork necessary to argue it.
See, “bad” arrests go forward for many reasons—poor training, bad supervision. But that can’t be proved with one case; you need a broader perspective of what’s going on. So Moustakas asked for arrest reports of “loud and boisterous” disruptions of the peace from November 2004 to November 2005. They were told that 1,002 such arrest reports existed, and they were given fewer than 900. Those documents are supposed to be kept in hard copy.
Losing 10 percent of all your arrest documents? “Just unheard of,” says Moustakas.
Once they looked at the 900 files they had, her attorneys found some unsettling facts. A full quarter of the reports lacked any evidence that a considerable number of people were disturbed. (That's a required element of disturbing the peace, for obvious reasons.) Nearly 34 percent were missing some element of the offense.
“Everyone in the case agreed that 34 percent error rate was outrageous," Moustakas says. "That means on the face of things, a third of your arrests are bad. That’s intolerable. [Defense] experts said that the highest amount that you could conceivably accept is a 5 percent error rate.”
According to Moustakas, the District never disagreed with the report, nor did city officials issue their own. "If they did their own study they could have said, ‘Look we did a study,'" he says. "'And we found there was no error rate!'"
For now, the District is staying quiet. As noted by an AP story, the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia has declined to comment on the verdict.