UPDATE: A federal civil rights lawsuit was filed on November 24, 2009 against the city of Atlanta and the individual police officers who participated in the raid. The lawsuit was filed by Atlanta attorney Dan Grossman, the Southern Center for Human Rights, and Lamdba Legal. A copy of the complaint is available here: Calhoun v. Pennington [pdf]
DISCLAIMER: This website is provided as general background. It is not intended as legal advice, and should not be considered legal advice. If you were at the Atlanta Eagle on the night of the raid and would like legal advice about your individual experience, please contact an attorney.
Legal Violations by the Atlanta Police Department
The police raid on the Eagle was in violation of the First Amendment (which protects freedom of speech), the Fourth Amendment (which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures), and Georgia state law regarding assault and battery, false imprisonment, and trespass, among other laws.
According to the facts which have already been admitted by the Police Department, the warrantless search conducted by the police violated the Fourth Amendment rights of dozens of patrons who were searched and seized without a warrant, reasonable suspicion, or probable cause.
Unreasonable Search and Seizure: The Fourth Amendment
The Fourth Amendment protects Americans against unreasonable search and seizure. The essence of the Fourth Amendment is that the police may not search or seize an individual without reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe that the particular individual is involved in criminal activity. And that is exactly what happened at the Atlanta Eagle: Police forced everyone to the ground, detained them for an extended period of time, searched them thoroughly, and entered their names into a police computer, simply because they were present at the bar.
The Atlanta Police have defended the raid, and claim that they have the right to search everyone in a public place if they suspect “illegal activity taking place inside the venue.”
Thirty years ago the United States Supreme Court decided a case involving the search of a bar that clearly shows what the police did was illegal.
In the case of Ybarra v. Illinois, police officers entered a bar called the Aurora Tap tavern with a warrant to search the bar and the bartender, but searched all the patrons as well. The Supreme Court held that it was illegal for the police to search the patrons of the bar simply because they were there.
The Supreme Court explained that “each patron who walked into the Aurora Tap Tavern on March 1, 1976, was clothed with constitutional protection against an unreasonable search or an un-reasonable seizure.” Even if the police had the right to search the bar or the bartender, the Supreme Court ruled, the officers had “no authority whatever to invade the constitutional protections possessed individually by the tavern’s customers.”
The police in the Ybarra case — like the police at the Eagle — searched, seized, and detained everyone in the bar, including all the patrons, simply because they were there. And that is something the courts have repeatedly found to be unconstitutional. As the Supreme Court stated in the Ybarra case, “a person’s mere propinquity [closeness] to others independently suspected of criminal activity does not, without more, give rise to probable cause to search that person.” In ruling that the officers illegally searched the patron in Ybarra, the Court explained that “a search or seizure of a person must be supported by probable cause particularized with respect to that person.”
Two years after the Ybarra case, the Supreme Court once again made it clear that to legally detain an individual, the “officers must have a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity.” See U.S. v. Cortez (emphasis added).
It is not clear that anyone committed any crime at the Eagle: No-one was charged with lewd conduct or indecent exposure, and it is far from clear that “unlicensed underwear dancing” is a crime. But even if the police did observe certain individuals at the Eagle breaking the law, they did not have the right to detain and search everyone else at the bar.
In a long line of cases beginning with Terry v. Ohio, the Supreme Court has discussed when a police officer may detain an individual to investigate a crime. In all of these cases, the Supreme Court has ruled that in order to detain an individual for even a split second, the police must have “reasonable suspicion” to believe that the particular individual being detained is involved in criminal activity. Reasonable suspicion must be based on specific facts, which the officer can articulate, about the particular individual being stopped; as the Court ruled in Ybarra v. Illinois, merely being in a public place where others may be committing a crime is not enough.
And even when officers do have sufficient “reasonable suspicion” to stop an individual for further investigation, that encounter must be “brief” and “minimally intrusive,” and anything more (such as the extended seizure of the patrons at the Eagle, who were forced to lie flat on the floor, some of them in handcuffs) is considered an arrest, which requires full-fledged “probable cause” (a much higher standard than “reasonable suspicion.”)
The police at the Eagle did not have the right to ask patrons who were not suspected of criminal activity for their names, let alone to search their pockets, confiscate their ID’s, and enter their names into a police computer. In Brown v. Texas, the Supreme Court ruled that a police officer may not require an individual to identify himself unless the officer has reasonable suspicion to believe that the individual “was engaged or had engaged in criminal conduct.” The Court in Brown v. Texas ruled that if a person is not suspected of a crime, he “may not be punished for refusing to identify himself.” (And as recently as 2004, the Supreme Court decided a case consistent with this principle.)
What about Officer Safety?
The Atlanta police have claimed that they detained and searched everyone at the Eagle in the interest of officer safety, but the conduct of the police cannot be justified on the basis of officer safety.
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