A gavel. (Credit: Unsplash)

By John Ruch

A federal lawsuit alleging that Atlanta Police Department (APD) officers unlawfully arrested a group of Black Lives Matter protesters in 2021 will proceed after a judge denied the City’s motion to dismiss.

The 19 plaintiffs in Baker v. City of Atlanta allege that officers broke up a peaceful protest and violated their First and Fourth Amendment rights with unlawful seizure, malicious prosecution and retaliation for free-speech activity. Among the defendants’ claims is that someone in the crowd threw an object at officers.

Drago Cepar Jr., the civil rights attorney representing the plaintiffs, said he considers the dismissal denial “a very favorable ruling.” The City did not respond to a comment request. The case now moves into discovery — the process where both sides exchange potential evidence for a trial.

Cepar is also advising more than a dozen protesters and journalists who are making similar claims about their 2022 arrests by APD and state police while covering the “Defend the Atlanta Forest” protests targeting the City’s controversial public safety training center. One of the journalists is preparing to sue shortly, according to another civil rights attorney.

Cepar has said the Black Lives Matter and Defend the Atlanta Forest cases show a kind of counter-protest pattern of police targeting journalists and using minor crimes as an excuse to arrest protesters with whom officers disagree, a practice that would be unconstitutional retaliation for First Amendment expression.

In Baker v. City of Atlanta, First Amendment retaliation is among the claims that U.S. District Judge Michael L. Brown allowed to proceed. Cepar says that decision does “not necessarily” shed any light on similar claims in other cases at this point, as Brown did not go into detail. “But any time such a claim can go forward, it is a good thing,” said Cepar.

In a March 20 order, Brown dismissed some of the plaintiffs’ claims of municipal liability and malicious prosecution but allowed other versions of the claims to proceed. He also let proceed the claims of unlawful seizure and First Amendment retaliation. All of the plaintiffs are suing several APD officers and 16 of them are suing the City in the lawsuit, which consolidates all of their complaints.

The lawsuit is based on a Jan. 6, 2021, vigil and march near Centennial Olympic Park about the Wisconsin police shooting of Jacob Blake, which became a national police reform issue. The plaintiffs claim that APD officers surrounded and mass-arrested nearly all of the protesters within minutes of the march beginning, using “pedestrian in roadway” charges. The City later dismissed all charges.

The march happened on the same day of the infamous insurrection attack on the U.S. Capitol, during which other protesters demonstrated in favor of President Trump’s election conspiracy theory at the Georgia State Capitol. While those Georgia protesters included armed militia members blocking the road, APD made no similar “pedestrian in roadway” arrests, the lawsuit claims.

APD and state policing of Defend the Atlanta Forest protests has drawn increasing scrutiny and complaints of First Amendment violations. That includes domestic terrorism charges imposed on dozens of people without specific accusations of violent acts. A man who claims to have been working as a journalist may sue after an APD arrest for filming police officers that civil rights attorneys say was unconstitutional. Another journalist recently complained of APD harassing her with a baseless traffic stop after she covered a protest.

APD also has a long history of lawsuits for unconstitutional arrests of people filming or photographing police activity. Under a previous settlement, APD is supposed to train officers about citizens’ rights to record them, and in 2015, a judge ruled the department in contempt of court for failing to do some of that training.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.