The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project filed a federal lawsuit today challenging the Grand Rapids Police Department’s longstanding practice of arresting innocent people for criminal trespass on commercial property without warning and without the business owner’s knowledge.

Even where those arrested are patronizing the business in question, police justify these illegal arrests by pointing to form letters signed by business owners months or years prior to the arrest agreeing to prosecute “trespassers.”

“Grand Rapids police are riding roughshod over the Bill of Rights by using these letters as a blank check to arrest anyone they don’t believe ‘belongs’ in a neighborhood,” said Miriam Aukerman, ACLU of Michigan staff attorney.

“Any one of us who pulls into a gas station in Grand Rapids to check a map or make a phone call could be arrested under the GRPD’s illegal policy.“

For years, the GRPD has solicited business owners to sign “Letters of Intent to Prosecute Trespassers” indicating that “the occupant(s) and/or owners of this address will prosecute all trespassers.” These letters do not articulate a business owner’s desire to keep a specific person off their property and are not directed at any particular person.

GRPD officers, aware that a business has signed a form letter, take it upon themselves to determine who does and does not “belong” on the premises and, in many cases, arrest patrons of the business without even giving them a warning that they must leave. More than 800 businesses have signed such letters just in the past several years.

According to the ACLU lawsuit, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled in 1997 that it is unconstitutional for Grand Rapids to use such letters as a substitute for probable cause of criminal wrongdoing. In February, the ACLU sent a letter to city officials urging them to end the practice to no avail.

“Despite our best efforts to resolve this without a lawsuit, the City continues to enforce this misguided and patently illegal practice,” said Jason D. Williamson, ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project staff attorney. “Arresting innocent people, including business patrons, for criminal trespassing is not only unconstitutional and degrading to those subject to arrest, it’s also damaging to the very businesses police purport to help.”

The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of two men, Gilbert Weber and Tyrone Hightower, who were arrested and jailed for trespassing in Grand Rapids although they were doing nothing wrong at the time.

Gilbert Weber, 46, stopped his car at a local BP gas station in June 2012 so he could stretch and relieve his chronic hip pain. Police approached Weber and questioned him about his presence at the gas station. Police then conducted a search of his car and administered a breathalyzer test, which he passed. Having failed to find any other basis to arrest Weber, the police arrested him for trespassing and he was jailed for three days until a friend bailed him out. At his hearing, it was revealed that at no time had the gas station clerk asked Weber to leave nor had the clerk complained to police. Instead, police arrested Weber based solely on the general Letter of Intent signed by the business owner. The charges against Weber were dismissed by a judge.

Tyrone Hightower, 33, was arrested for trespassing in September 2011 when he and two friends pulled into the parking lot of Cheero’s Sports Bar. It was raining at the time, so Hightower and a friend waited in the car while another friend held a spot for them in the long line to get in. As the men waited for their turn, police approached the car and arrested the pair. A police video of the encounter shows police citing the general Letter of Intent signed by the owner of Cheero’s as the basis for the arrest. Hightower was jailed for several hours and later the charges were dropped by the prosecutor.

The ACLU lawsuit asks the court to order an immediate halt to this unconstitutional practice and declare that the City of Grand Rapids and GRPD, through the use of general Letters of Intent, have violated Weber and Hightower’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unlawful arrests. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan.

In addition to Aukerman and Williamson, Weber and Hightower are represented by ACLU of Michigan Legal Director Michael J. Steinberg and Cooperating Attorney Bryan Waldman of the law firm Sinas, Dramis, Brake, Boughton & McIntyre, P.C.

Read the complaint in Weber v. the City of Grand Rapids.