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Brooklyn Bridge Mass Arrest Lawsuit Can Proceed, Appeals Court Rules

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BROOKLYN BRIDGE ARREST
Police arrest demonstrators affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement after they attempted to cross the Brooklyn Bridge on the motorway on Oct. 1, 2011, in New York City. | Mario Tama via Getty Images

NEW YORK -- Hundreds of people arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge in the early days of the Occupy Wall Street protests can proceed with their lawsuit against the police, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.

The ruling from a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit means that the plaintiffs can proceed to force New York City to turn over documents about how and why the mass arrest occurred, the next step toward a potential trial. Many of the marchers allege the police tricked them into walking onto the main roadway of the span in the Oct. 1, 2011, incident.

"This is a major victory for free speech rights and the democratic right to assemble without being mass-arrested," said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, a lawyer for the plaintiffs with the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund.

"This is a ruling that denies the city's attempt to dismiss the lawsuit, so now we, on behalf of the 700 people who were subject to mass false arrest can proceed to seek justice from the NYPD, which over and over again violated the rights of people throughout the Occupy movement."

Celeste Koeleveld, assistant corporation counsel for public safety at the New York City Law Department, responded to the decision in an emailed statement. "We are disappointed in the decision," she said. "As the dissenting judge correctly recognized, police officers have to make on-the-spot judgments when policing large-scale demonstrations that pose a threat to public safety -- and those judgments should not be second-guessed with the benefit of hindsight. We are reviewing our options."

Although the panel handed the protesters a significant victory when it upheld an earlier ruling from a district judge, there were also signs that protesters may face future roadblocks.

"Ultimately, to recover damages, the plaintiffs will need to establish that particular defendants acted unreasonably in arresting them (or directing their arrest)," the court wrote, adding that they may have a "difficult time" doing so.

The protesters will also face another obstacle: time. Another case, based on the NYPD's mass arrest during the 2004 Republican National Convention, went on for almost a decade before reaching a settlement.

"We would anticipate that this would be a quicker process and we will be pursuing this vigorously," said Verheyden-Hilliard.

The NYPD, meanwhile, has not ceased to arrest people during political protests, despite the arrival of new Mayor Bill de Blasio and new Police Commissioner Bill Bratton. During a hundreds-strong march of black-clad protesters in memory of Michael Brown on Wednesday night, several people were arrested.

This post was updated with a comment from Celeste Koeleveld.

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