Photo: Shay Horse

On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump was sworn in as President, and many individuals, exercising their First Amendment rights, demonstrated in the streets of Washington, D.C. A few demonstrators committed acts of vandalism but most did not. In response to the vandalism, the District’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) rounded up and arrested hundreds of people, including people who engaged in no illegal activity. During the demonstrations and then while detaining demonstrators for hours, police fired pepper spray, tear gas, and flash-bang grenades at crowds of demonstrators, journalists, and legal observers, frequently without warning or justification. In the course of the roundup and subsequent processing of demonstrators, police held detainees for hours without access to food, water, or access to toilets; cuffed some detainees so tightly as to cause loss of feeling or cuts in the skin; and subjected some of the detainees to excessively invasive searches.

In June 2017, we filed a lawsuit on behalf of four individuals, including a photojournalist and a legal observer, harmed by the police conduct on Inauguration Day. The complaint seeks damages for violations of plaintiffs’ constitutional rights to free expression, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, and due process, and also raises claims for assault and battery, false arrest and imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and violations of the D.C. First Amendment Assemblies Act.

In January 2018, we amended the complaint to add two additional plaintiffs — a single mother and her 10-year-old son who were peacefully demonstrating on Inauguration Day when a police charged forward and knocked the boy down without warning; as he and his mother tried to flee, both were exposed to pepper spray that the police discharged at nonviolent demonstrators.

In March 2018, defendants moved to dismiss all claims. Briefing concluded in July 2018, with one claim receiving additional briefing in January 2019.

During the first year of our litigation, two of the plaintiffs in our civil case continued to face criminal charges brought by an overzealous U.S. Attorney’s Office. But in the spring and summer of 2018, the last of the criminal charges against our clients were dropped by the prosecutor (see additional discussion of our work as amicus in the criminal cases, here).

On September 27, 2019, in an oral ruling from the bench, the court denied in large part the defendants’ motion to dismiss. The court allowed plaintiffs to proceed with multiple claims under the Fourth Amendment along with claims for violations of due process, assault and battery, false arrest, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The court dismissed claims under the First Amendment and First Amendment Assemblies Act, as well as claims related to one plaintiff’s assault. Of note, the court refused to dismiss the constitutional claims against the District of Columbia government, ruling that plaintiffs had stated a viable claim that D.C. failed to provide the necessary supervision or training to its police officers. The court also ruled that the police officers could not avoid answering the suit on the ground that the constitutional rules applicable to their conduct were unclear. Thus, the core of the case will move forward, including at least one claim about each of the types of misconduct our clients experienced that day: mass arrest, excessive force, injurious handcuffing, denial of detainees’ basic needs, and intrusive searches.

The court referred the parties to mediation in the fall of 2019. In April 2021, our clients agreed to settle the case for a payment of $605,000, an agreement that the government would not oppose the arrested plaintiffs’ motion to expunge their arrest records, and policy changes to speed up processing during mass arrests and to require that officers be reminded of the First Amendment Assemblies Act prior to mass demonstrations. Taken together with a simultaneous settlement in a separate class-action case alleging many of the same constitutional violations, the District agreed to pay a total of $1.6 million to settle the civil claims arising from the actions of D.C. police on Inauguration Day 2017. Under Chief Newsham’s leadership from 2017 to 2020, the D.C. police department and its officers were sued repeatedly, by the ACLU-DC and others, for unconstitutional responses to protests and for other constitutional violations; in late 2020, Chief Newsham announced he would leave MPD to take a lower-paying position in the Virginia suburbs.

Date filed

June 21, 2017