St. Paul RNC mass-arrests: Police acted reasonably, court affirms

The U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today that police acted reasonably when arresting 400 people en masse on September 1, 2008 during the Republican National Convention in St. Paul.

Today's ruling affirms U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson's 2010  decision to dismiss a lawsuit brought by 32 plaintiffs again the city of St. Paul and six police officers. The plaintiffs allege the RNC arrests violated their First and Fourth Amendments rights.

In their opinion, 8th Circuit judges first set the scene of that late summer afternoon in St. Paul during the first day of the RNC:

Throughout the first day, property damage was reported around the City.There were broken building windows, objects thrown at cars and buses, and vandalized police cars. After marches with permits had ended, Senior Commander Joseph Neuberger, who was the east area commander for mobile field force operations during the Convention, ordered that no one be allowed to enter the downtown area. Neuberger believed it was necessary to "reestablish control [and] reestablish law enforcement presence" downtown and around the Convention site.

After police closed off access to downtown, a group of around 100 people gathered across the street from police at the intersection of Shepard Road and Jackson Street. About 15 of them then began to cross the street and walk toward police -- some of them, the opinion points out, donning a sign that read "Direct Action Against Capitalism." (Anything but that!)

Police instructed the protesters to "back up!" But they kept walking toward the officers, prompting police to deploy "stinger blast balls." Although the plaintiffs deny seeing anyone throw objects at the police, the officers reported that numerous objects -- including rocks and bags containing feces -- were tossed at them while the protesters approached.

Officers then tried to corral the group, which was expanding in size as officers marched them down the street, to a park down the street adjacent to Shepard Road and near Ontario Street. Having done so, officers announced by loudspeaker that everyone in the encircled crowd, which now consisted of about 400 people, was under arrest and must sit down with their hands on their heads. Ultimately, 25 protesters were booked and taken into custody. Everyone was released within 72 hours, and all charges were eventually dismissed.

The plaintiffs allege that the officers violated the Fourth Amendment by conducting a mass arrest when they had probable cause only with respect to a subset of the arrestees, but the 8th Circuit disagreed:

The scene in downtown St. Paul during the evening of September 2.
The scene in downtown St. Paul during the evening of September 2.
Chad Davis
Based on undisputed evidence, the officers in this case reasonably could have concluded that the group at the Shepard-Jackson intersection had committed a crime and that the group was acting as a unit...From these actions, a reasonable officer could have concluded that the individuals at the intersection were acting together and that they intended to break through the police line in an attempt to access downtown St. Paul. It was reasonable, therefore, for an officer to believe that the group, as a whole, was committing one or more offenses under state law, including third degree riot and unlawful assembly.

With regard to the First Amendment claim, the 8th Circuit's opinion concludes that officers only interfered with the free-speech rights of  protesters after some of them began to march toward police. Since "a reasonable officer" could interpret that action as a threat and since traffic was illegally blocked by the protesters, the court concludes that the protesters' conduct wasn't a form of "protected speech."

If you need a refresher on how intense the RNC protests were for some of the bystanders who got swept up in them -- as many certainly did on September 1 -- then check out this video footage of the arrest of Democracy Now! producer Nicole Salazar, or this account by a City Pages staffer of his detention.

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