Detroit Police Adopt Strong Free Speech Policies to Settle ACLU Lawsuits
DETROIT – The Detroit Police Department has adopted new policies and training directives to settle lawsuits brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan on behalf of innocent individuals who were charged with bogus misdemeanors after questioning the authority of Detroit officers. U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn dismissed the cases today after the settlement was made final.
“These new policies represent a solid step forward for civil liberties in the City of Detroit,” said Dan Korobkin, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan and lead attorney in the settled cases. “Police departments across the state should follow Detroit’s lead and institute similar policies to ensure that innocent people aren’t harassed when they stand up for their rights. It’s not a crime to ask police questions or to criticize their actions.”
In June 2010, the ACLU of Michigan filed two federal lawsuits asking the court to rule that the Detroit police violated the constitutional rights of two men who were ticketed and charged with misdemeanors for asking officers who approached them questions.
The two individuals were charged with “loitering in a known drug area” and “distributing flyers without a permit” even though neither is against the law. The officers denied wrongdoing but the City of Detroit agreed to settle the lawsuits by adopting strong policies and training guidelines to prevent such abuses of police power from occurring in the future.
According to the new policies, citizens have a First Amendment right to question, criticize or complain about police practices without being retaliated against by officers who may not be accustomed to being questioned. The policies also state that loitering, by itself, is not a crime and therefore cannot be the basis for arrest or an investigative stop, and citizens have a First Amendment right to stand on a sidewalk distributing non-commercial leaflets and flyers without a permit or license.
The city also agreed to include a link to a citizen complaint form on the homepage of the police department’s website. Previously, it was unclear how citizens could access the online complaint form.
The lawsuits stem from two separate incidents in which individuals were ticketed and charged with non-existent misdemeanors after questioning the police officers who approached them.
In 2008, Ken Anderson, a U.S. Army veteran, was parked on a side street just east of Woodward using a laptop computer, when an unmarked police car pulled up and two officers approached him. When one of the officers asked for identification, Anderson asked what "probable cause" they had to stop and question him. Anderson was then given a misdemeanor ticket for loitering in a known drug area – an offense that is not even on the books.
The other lawsuit was filed on behalf of Phil Letten who was distributing pamphlets about animal cruelty outside Comerica Park with other members of Vegan Outreach when an officer ordered them to stop. Letten stopped handing out the literature, but noted that he was on a public sidewalk and asked the officer if he could see a copy of whatever ordinance made his actions illegal. Instead of showing him the ordinance, the police officer ticketed him for distributing flyers without a permit even though no such infraction exists.
“We know what happened to Ken and Phil is not unique to Detroit,” said Korobkin. “We hear stories from across Michigan of people harassed, ticketed or jailed as retaliation for asking questions or voicing complaints. It’s important that police departments train their officers to safeguard against such violations that erode community trust and waste scarce resources.”
Detroit’s new policies are contained within “training directives” that were distributed to all officers and read aloud for seven consecutive days at roll call for each shift. The training directives will be distributed and read aloud again in June.