DETROIT — In a legal brief filed today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan asked a district court judge to dismiss criminal charges against Michael White, a patron of the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit (CAID) who was detained and cited by Detroit Police during the raid of a members-only gathering at the gallery.

White and approximately 129 other patrons were ticketed for allegedly violating a Detroit ordinance that makes it a crime to “loiter in a place of illegal occupation” an ordinance the ACLU says is unconstitutional. The ACLU of Michigan is also representing 115 other patrons whose cases are on hold pending a ruling in this case.  If the judge rules the ordinance is unconstitutional in White’s case, the charges will be dismissed against the others as well. 

“We are extremely alarmed by the local trend of masked police officers in commando outfits and guns drawn needlessly storming peaceful gatherings in Detroit, charging everyone under an unconstitutional ordinance and seizing everyone’s car,” said Kary L. Moss, ACLU of Michigan Executive Director. “If it is true that the museum was violating liquor laws, the police should address the issue with the gallery, not terrorize the innocent gallery patrons.”

On May 31, 2008, more than 100 young people gathered at the CAID, a nonprofit that has promoted art and art education in Detroit for 29 years, for Funk Night, a monthly members only event, which lasts from midnight to 5 a.m.

Shortly after 2 a.m. more than two dozen Detroit Police officers, dressed entirely in black, with their faces masked and guns drawn, stormed into the CAID and ordered all patrons to lie face down, including those who were outside on the back patio. Those who did not move fast enough or asked questions were kicked to the ground by officers. The officers then separated men and women and searched them all, issuing each a ticket for “loitering in a place of illegal occupation.” The officers also seized all the vehicles that were at the gallery under the Michigan nuisance abatement statute. In total, approximately 130 loitering citations were issued and 44 vehicles were seized.

Although the officers were identified as police in small writing on their hats and jackets, many patrons reported not being able to see the writing and therefore, were initially terrified that the police were actually armed robbers.

According to the 20-page brief, charges against the patrons should be dismissed because the ordinance is unconstitutionally vague and it violates the patrons’ First Amendment rights to freedom of expression and association. In addition, the ordinance violates the Fourth Amendment because the Detroit police lacked probable cause to detain and cite patrons.

White and the other ACLU clients are represented by Moss, ACLU Cooperating Attorney Kenneth Mogill and ACLU of Michigan Legal Director Michael J. Steinberg.