Photo: Shay Horse

Settlements Resolve Lawsuits Alleging False Arrests and Excessive Force


WASHINGTON - The ACLU of the District of Columbia, the Law Office of Jeffrey Light, and the District of Columbia today filed court papers stating the District will pay $1.6 million to settle two demonstrators’ rights lawsuits—one brought by the ACLU-DC and the other by Jeffrey Light. The two lawsuits, filed on behalf of journalists, legal observers, and demonstrators who protested the inauguration of President Trump in January 2017, charged that former Metropolitan Police Department Police Chief Peter Newsham and more than two dozen MPD officers engaged in or supervised constitutional violations including mass arrests of demonstrators without probable cause, unlawful conditions of confinement for detainees, and/or use of excessive force.

“I came with my son, then 10 years old, to the nation’s capital on Inauguration Day 2017 to exercise my constitutional rights and teach him about the power of protest,” said Gwen Frisbie-Fulton of North Carolina, who along with her son is a plaintiff in the ACLU-DC case. “Because of the wanton and brutal conduct of the D.C. police, we ended up fleeing through a cloud of pepper spray for doing nothing but chanting and holding signs. So the real lesson in how our Constitution works had to be this lawsuit, showing that there can be consequences when law enforcement abuses its power.”

The two lawsuits charged that, in response to vandalism and property damage caused by a small number of protestors, MPD officers rounded up, or “kettled,” more than 200 protesters—including many who had broken no laws—and detained them without access to food, water, or restrooms for up to 16 hours. Officers also deployed pepper spray, flash-bang grenades, concussion grenades, and stingballs— explosive devices that release smoke, rubber pellets, and a chemical irritant within a radius of approximately 50 feet—against protesters and others both on the street and inside the kettle, without warning and in circumstances where there was no threat of harm to officers or the public. The lawsuits asserted that MPD officers violated the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments, and D.C. law. Along with Frisbie-Fulton and her son, the ACLU-DC represents demonstrators Elizabeth Lagesse and Milo Gonzalez, photojournalist Shay Horse, and legal observer Judah Ariel. The other lawsuit is a class action filed on behalf of more than 100 demonstrators.

"MPD’s unconstitutional guilt-by-association policing and excessive force, including the use of chemical weapons, not only injured our clients physically but also chilled their speech and the speech of countless others who wished to exercise their First Amendment rights but feared an unwarranted assault by D.C. police,” said Scott Michelman, Legal Director, ACLU of the District of Columbia. “The contrast between the over-policing of constitutionally protected speech on Inauguration Day 2017 and the under-policing of a violent invasion of the U.S. Capitol earlier this year starkly demonstrates law enforcement’s institutional biases. A diverse group of protestors with a left-wing message was subjected to a mass arrest without cause, whereas armed white insurrectionists with a right-wing message stormed Congress, and the police let them walk away.”

“It speaks volumes that the District has chosen to settle rather than defend MPD’s obviously unconstitutional actions in court,” said attorney Jeffrey Light. “Today’s settlements provide some measure of compensation for all the people who were unconstitutionally arrested and confined for exercising their rights on Inauguration Day four years ago.”

According to a December 2020 story in the Washington Post, D.C. Police have paid out more than $40 million since 2016 to settle police misconduct lawsuits. Two of the MPD officers named as defendants in the lawsuits settled today are also defendants in the case the ACLU-DC filed last summer over the brutal crackdown against civil rights protestors on June 1 near Lafayette Square.

The $1.6 million settlement announced today is the combined amount D.C. has agreed to pay to settle both Inauguration Day 2017 lawsuits—the ACLU-DC case and the class action. The ACLU-DC case settled for $605,000. Subject to final approval by the Court, the class action settlement is for $995,000. The D.C. Office of the Attorney General has agreed it will not oppose motions to expunge the arrest records of plaintiffs in both suits. As part of the settlement in the ACLU-DC case, MPD will issue a formal directive modifying the procedures for processing of arrestees to avoid subjecting them to long waits for basic necessities such as access to restrooms and water.

More information about the ACLU-DC's lawsuit, Horse v. District of Columbia, can be found here.

More information about the class action lawsuit, Schultz v. District of Columbia, can be found here.