New York City has agreed to pay $18 million to settle dozens of lawsuits filed by protesters, journalists and bystanders who said they were wrongly arrested at the 2004 Republican National Convention and held for hours in makeshift holding cells, lawyers said Wednesday.
The settlement, which must be approved by a federal judge, would end nearly a decade of legal wrangling over more than 1,800 arrests, mostly on charges of disorderly conduct or parading without a permit. Hundreds sued, saying they were illegally arrested by an overzealous police department. Nearly all the arrests were dismissed by the court or the defendants acquitted.
Neal Curley was 17 at the time of his arrest. He had come to the city from Philadelphia with his father to see a show and decided to join one of the protests. Curley was arrested crossing the street and held for 14 hours. In the time the case has been litigated, he graduated from high school and college and now is 26 and working at an art gallery.
"I'm glad it finally happened," he said of the case's end. "I hope it sets and important precedent that the right to free speech and assembly are basic American rights."
Deirdre MacNamara, another woman who sued, said she wasn't even protesting when she was arrested, just out buying a milkshake.
"If this average person can get arrested just walking down the street," she said, everyone should be worried.
Lawyers with the New York Civil Liberties Union had previously asked the judge hearing case to conclude that police didn't have probable cause to make mass arrests during the convention, at which President George W. Bush was nominated for another term.
"This historic settlement sends a clear message," said NYCLU attorney Chris Dunn. "We will not allow the police to stampede the First Amendment rights of protesters."
The city had argued for dismissal, arguing that nearly 800,000 people demonstrated during the convention and only a small fraction of them were arrested. The convention was police by as many as 10,000 officers from the 35,000-member police department, the nation's largest. They were assigned to protect the city from terrorism threats and to cope with tens of thousands of demonstrators.
Both sides said in a joint statement that it was best to settle. The city won't admit guilt under the agreement, which includes about $7 million in attorney fees. Amounts to the plaintiffs will vary from about $1,000 to $20,000 depending on their role in the lawsuits, lawyers said.
City lawyers said it was important to defend the case and noted that police policies used during the convention were upheld.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has promised better cooperation with the police department and residents, said he was glad the case was settled.
"I have spoken before about my concerns as to how that situation was handled at the time and I'm glad we're moving forward. And we're going to take a very different view going forward about how we respect people's rights to express themselves," he said.
Prior to Wednesday's announcement, 142 other plaintiffs who sued over the arrests had settled with the city for a total of about $1.8 million, mostly in 2007.
Sarah Coburn, 30, said her arrest at the convention inspired her to become an attorney to fight for the civil rights of others. She was 20 at the time, and was held for 30 hours before she was released. She's now a public defender.
"It was awful to be subjected to those conditions," she said. "I want to make sure no one else has to be."