NEW YORK — Saying the Constitution does not recognize guilty by association, a federal judge ruled Monday that hundreds of protesters were arrested without probable cause during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York.
U.S. District Judge Richard Sullivan said in a written decision that "undisputed fact" included a video of a march in lower Manhattan showing Ware Resisters League marchers were trying to comply with police instructions when officers abruptly withdrew consent for the rally and made mass arrests without giving anyone a realistic chance to leave the scene.
The judge's ruling regarded one of two locations where attorneys had offered the judge a test of dozens of lawsuits accusing the city of acting illegally when it made 1,800 arrests, the most ever during a political convention. Sullivan's findings were likely to facilitate the settlement of many lawsuits that resulted from other locations where police had made large numbers of arrests.
Sullivan urged as much at the end of his opinion, when he noted that the arrests occurred "more than eight years, and two Republican National Conventions, ago." He told lawyers to confer and find a "speedy and just resolution of these actions."
The 226 arrests near the World Trade Center site were subject to laws requiring that an arresting officer believe that every individual arrested personally violated the law, regardless of participation in a group, the judge said.
"Nothing short of such a finding can justify arrest," he said. "The Fourth Amendment does not recognize guilt by association."
The judge says a trial is needed to determine whether police took necessary steps to extract innocent people from those arrested at a second protest location.
Peter Farrell, a city attorney, called the demonstrations "an extraordinary security challenge."
He said Sullivan's ruling validated two city policies by ruling that fingerprinting arrestees and arresting people rather than giving them tickets did not violate the Constitution.
"The Court upheld these policies under the most exacting judicial scrutiny possible, finding them Constitutional and warranted in light of the threats the city faced during the RNC," he said. "We are reviewing the remainder of the decision and considering our legal options in that regard."
Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, called on the city to settle the remaining cases.
"Today's ruling should put to an end to the City's effort to defend the mass arrests during the Convention," said Dunn, who argued the case on behalf of the protesters.
"This ruling is a victory for the right to protest – a core democratic principle," said Donna Lieberman, the group's executive director. "It places an important check on the abusive policing tactics used to suppress protests during the 2004 RNC."
During a hearing before Sullivan in May, a city attorney noted that the arrests occurred as roughly 800,000 people protested during the week. The city said police took reasonable steps to ensure only people engaged in illegal activity were arrested.