Detroit rescinds protesters' curfew tickets, OKs lawsuit spending

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the Detroit City Council approved spending $200,000 to defend against lawsuits, including a federal complaint filed against the city by Detroit Will Breathe. An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the city’s actions.

Detroit — The city's Law Department announced Tuesday it was dismissing dozens of curfew violation citations that were issued to protesters during downtown anti-police brutality demonstrations seven months ago.

The announcement came a few hours before the City Council voted to allow the Law Department to spend $200,000 to defend against lawsuits, including one brought by the group that organized the protests, Detroit Will Breathe.

The attorney representing the protest group said the curfew ticket amnesty is an attempt to influence future court outcomes a week after a 36th District judge dismissed charges against 28 demonstrators who'd been arrested during the protests in late May and early June.

Shelby Johnson and the Detroit Will Breathe march makes their way down Randolph during protests in Detroit.

Detroit Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia announced the decision to rescind the curfew tickets in an emailed statement Tuesday.

"In the many months since those tickets were issued, the City Law Department and Police Department have worked to study videotape and other evidence from the events in question," he said. "The departments have also considered the discretion that was exercised during that week — where, for example, citations written on June 1 were never submitted to the court, and where many protesters were not ticketed at all, despite being out after curfew.

"In light of that review, the Law Department is dismissing the majority of misdemeanor tickets issued on May 31 and June 2.  Although certain cases from these two dates will be pursued, the City believes it is best to dismiss the vast majority of citations."

Police chief James Craig said dismissing the tickets makes sense, since they were issued to stave off possible violence.

"The tickets weren't meant to impact the peaceful protests, but to mitigate the kind of violence and destruction of property we saw during protests in other cities across the country," Craig said. "After two days, I made the unilateral decision to stop enforcing the curfews, even though the protesters were in violation."

About two hours after Garcia's email was sent, the City Council voted 5-4 to approve a Law Department request to spend $200,000 to defend against the lawsuit filed by Detroit Will Breathe, which alleged in its federal complaint that Detroit officers used excessive force during an August protest.

The city claimed in a November countersuit that the protests amounted to a conspiracy, and that demonstrators should be forced to pay any damages.

President Brenda Jones and members Andre Spivey, Janee Ayers, Scott Benson and Roy McCalister Jr., voted yes. President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield and members James Tate, Raquel Castaneda-Lopez and Gabe Leland voted no.

Several people, including U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, weighed in prior to Tuesday's City Council vote, saying during the Zoom meeting they didn't want taxpayer money spent on the countersuit, although the agenda didn't specifically mention the countersuit, but requested the funds "for Assistance with Legal Matters that include Governmental Affairs and Litigation."

After the vote, Tlaib's office issued a press release denouncing the Council's decision.

“A budget is a moral document. On every level of government, the decisions our elected officials make convey what their priorities are for our community," she wrote. " Today, a majority of the Detroit City Council voted to fund baseless attacks on the civil and constitutional rights of Black Lives Matter protestors in the largest majority-Black city in the country.

"The members who voted to fund a retaliation attempt against protestors have sent a clear message that the U.S. Constitution does not apply to the streets of Detroit and those who are pushing for change," Tlaib wrote.

For weeks, hundreds of people flooded downtown Detroit and other sections of the city during protests following the May 25th choking death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Most of the Detroit protests were peaceful, although there also were protests with clashes between cops and demonstrators.

Craig insists his officers only used force seven times during more than 100 days of protests.

"We only used force when our officers were attacked, or when there was resistance when we made lawful arrests," he said. "People have a constitutional right to protest, but they don't have a right to break the law."

In the lawsuit, Detroit Will Breathe claims officers engaged in "unnecessary, unreasonable and excessive force," and that the protesters were "tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, beaten ... shot with rubber bullets ... put in chokeholds ... and arrested en masse without probable cause."

Julie Hurwitz, an attorney who represents Detroit Will Breathe in the federal lawsuit, said Garcia's decision was an attempt to control public perception and influence future court decisions.

Hurwitz pointed out that 36th District Judge Larry Williams on Thursday dismissed 28 cases against protesters who'd been charged with various offenses, and said Garcia's announcement to rescind the tickets "is clearly an attempt to avoid a series of court decisions that will publicize how Detroit police violated people's rights."

Hurwitz and co-counsel William Goodman said they demanded the city bring the arresting officers into court.

"The city was ordered to produce body-cam footage and identify the officers who arrested each of the defendants, but (the city) was unable to produce any evidence," Hurwitz said. "So, politically, the city knows they're in an impossible situation, and that's what (rescinding the curfew tickets) is all about."

During the public comment portion of Tuesday's Council meeting on Zoom, prior to the council vote on the spending, Tlaib and others urged council members to reject the request.

Tlaib said she never thought Detroit would use resources to silence people marching against mass incarceration and other unjust practices. She insisted any payout would amount to "retribution" against protesters "in an attempt to silence them."

Resident Alex Nest also urged the council to reject the Law Department request.

"I'm here to ask you to deny that," he said. "We were already attacked in the streets. The city of Detroit does not need to file a counterclaim to have its day in court. This counterclaim is not about the city defending itself, but going on the offensive against critics of Mayor Duggan and police Chief Craig."

Amy Senese, a resident of the city for 10 years, also opposed the contract. "I was maced at point-blank range ... while peacefully protesting. The council needs to stop defending Mayor Duggan and Chief Craig."

Sammie Lewis, an organizer with Detroit will Breathe, added that the judge's decision last week to dismiss cases against protesters should be a factor in the council's decision.

"The lack of evidence in a court of law should exemplify the lack of evidence in a counterclaim," he said. "The city of Detroit is backing police brutality and violating our First Amendment rights to protest."

During the meeting, Garcia said whether there’s a counterclaim or not, his office has to defend the city in the federal court case involving Detroit Will Breathe.

“That is going to be an expense that requires funding no matter where we stand with respect to a counterclaim,” he said.

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN