What Happened at the Atlanta Eagle?
On the evening of on September 10, 2009, Atlanta police officers stormed into the Atlanta Eagle without a warrant.
The police say they entered the bar to investigate reports of lewd conduct, and to make arrests for unlicensed adult entertainment because the bar had four dancers in boxer-brief-style costumes.
But the police did not limit their attention the bar’s dancers or employees. Instead, when the SWAT-type force entered the bar, they immediately ordered everyone to lie face-down on the floor, including dozens of patrons who were fully dressed and not suspected of any criminal activity whatsoever.
Over the next two hours, police thoroughly searched everyone at the bar, confiscated everyone’s ID’s, and entered everyone’s name into a police computer, including patrons whose only “crime” was to be present in a legal public place.
According to the patrons (a group which included several elderly men), police officers shoved people to the ground, threatened to hit them in the head with barstools, handcuffed people, made racist and anti-gay comments, and forced patrons to remain flat on the ground, with their faces against a floor covered in some areas with spilled beer and broken glass, even long after they had been searched and found to be unarmed.
One of the patrons (whose father was a police officer), described the scene to a reporter: “Nothing was ever explained to us by the officers. When I asked if I could move away from the broken glass, I was told, ‘Shut the fuck up or you’ll be handcuffed.’ The police were laughing and joking while we were lying there and at different times, I heard them say, ‘You people make me sick’ and ‘I hate fags.’ One of them said, ‘This is fun; we should do this every week.’”
When the patrons were eventually released, not a single patron was charged with breaking any law. At the end of the raid, the only charges filed by the police were against the four dancers and four bar employees, and related to the “unlicensed adult entertainment” that the officers originally raided the bar to investigate. (The bar’s four dancers were charged with “dancing in underwear” without a permit, and four employees were charged with operating an adult entertainment establishment without a license.) No drugs were found on anyone at the bar, and no-one was charged with public sex, indecent exposure, lewd conduct, or any other crime.
The warrantless search and seizure of everyone present at the Atlanta Eagle was simply illegal: Police officers may not search, seize, or arrest an individual unless they have reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe that particular individual is personally involved in criminal activity. The Supreme Court has made it clear that police may not search or seize an individual simply because he is in a public place where others may be breaking the law, and Americans have the right to go to a legal public place without fear of being searched or seized by the police as long as they themselves obey the law.
The actions of the police were not motivated by any real concern about unlicensed dancing or lewd conduct: Forcing fully-dressed patrons to lay face-down on the ground, searching their pockets, putting their names into a police computer, and keeping them on the floor long after they had been searched is not logically related to any legitimate investigation of lewd conduct or unlicensed underwear dancing. In fact, there is no reason to ‘investigate” a fully-dressed person for either of these offenses, and it would seem the police were really just punishing the patrons for being at the Eagle in the first place, or conducting an illegal search for drugs.
Since the justification for the raid was to investigate unlicensed underwear dancing and reports of lewd conduct, when the officers encountered dozens of patrons who were fully dressed and breaking no laws, they should not have detained them for even a moment, let alone subject them to a harrowing ordeal.
If you were present at the Eagle on the night of the raid, please click here.
What Happened at the Atlanta Eagle?
A) The Raid According to the Police:
The following facts have been admitted by the Atlanta Police or confirmed by the Atlanta Journal Constitution and are not in dispute.
According to the police, on the evening of on September 10, 2009, at least nine undercover officers entered the Atlanta Eagle without a warrant, posing as customers, for the purpose of conducting a criminal investigation. At around 11:00 PM the undercover officers signaled for a full raid to begin, and at least twelve officers of the Atlanta “RED DOG” squad entered the bar as a “take down team,” also without a warrant. (RED DOG is a SWAT-type force used to “provide aggressive police presence in areas that have a high incidence of street drug sales, use, and drug related crimes.”)
According to Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington, the raid was initiated because the undercover officers observed individuals at the bar dancing partially clothed. According to Chief Pennington, the RED DOG team entered the bar to arrest the dancers and bar employees for providing adult entertainment without a permit. At his press conference, Chief Pennington explained: “In order to dance partially clothed or naked in Atlanta, the business must have a license to do so, and if the dancers accept money for dancing that also requires a permit. The business does not have a license for either and that was the premise of the arrest.” (Pennington press conference, minute mark 1:01)
The police have also claimed that on previous occasions undercover officers observed illegal sex at the bar, but no-one was charged with public sex on those previous occasions, or on the night of the raid.
When the SWAT team entered the bar to arrest the dancers and employees, however, they did not simply arrest those individuals. Instead, the officers immediately ordered everyone in the bar, including about 62 patrons, to lay flat on the ground with their faces against the floor, and then searched everyone present at the bar, took everyone’s ID, and entered everyone’s name into a police computer.
Despite the lack of a search warrant authorizing them to enter the bar in the first place, and despite the fact that they were investigating non-violent offenses and City Code violations, the police came to the Eagle prepared for a full-scale raid, and brought three police “paddy wagons” and numerous other vehicles to the Eagle that evening.
The only charges filed against anyone at the bar were for unlicensed dancing in underwear; no-one was charged with lewd conduct, indecent exposure, or drug charges.
Patrons and employees who were present at the Eagle during the raid describe a harrowing, terrifying ordeal lasting between 30 minutes for some people and 2-1/2 hours for others. According to witness statements, the “SWAT team” stormed into the bar with an overwhelming display of force, shoving patrons (including older men) to the floor, kicking down doors, shouting anti-gay slurs, and threatening to hit patrons in the head with with barstools when they asked what was happening. Patrons were forced to lay face-down on the floor, which was covered in some areas with spilled beer and broken glass, and were not allowed to move even after officers had searched them and determined that no-one was armed. Some patrons were handcuffed, and many were threatened with physical violence if they questioned the officers in any way.
Police complaints filed by patrons and employees describe the atmosphere during the raid, and were reported in the press. For example, the following reports were published by the Southern Voice newspaper:
• One man said officers grabbed patrons who didn’t immediately lie down by the neck and forced them to the ground. The man said he was kicked in the ribs while lying down. “Then I heard laughing and giggling and saying this is more fun than raiding niggers with crack. They also told us to shut the fuck up unless we were spoken too [sic].” The man said he heard one person told that if he spoke again he would be hit with a chair. He also reported that one officer “said to everyone in general that all you all do is flash your asses and show your cocks.”
• “I was forced down by physical force. They grabbed my neck and pushed me down. They put their boot on my back and told me to stay down. … If anyone asked anything they were told to ‘shut the fuck up.'”
• Another patron said he saw officers forcing people to the ground by pushing their shoulders or the backs of their heads. He said he asked to move because there was broken glass on the floor where he was lying, and he was told to “shut the fuck up.” The customer recounted hearing anti-gay slurs: “I heard several slurs such as ‘I hate homosexuals.’ I also heard ‘I don’t like fags.’ One officer asked me if I was married and had any children, and he told me I should be ashamed for being there.” The customer recounted having his diabetes medication, which was in an unmarked container, taken and not returned. He recounted hearing another customer told that if he didn’t be quiet, an officer would hit him over the head with one of the barstools. “There were several officers standing over me that started joking about this is a lot of fun, we ought to come back and do this every week.”
Despite the lack of a search warrant, the police also thoroughly searched the bar itself, including cash register drawers and the manager’s office on the second floor, as well as a separately owned retail store which leases space from the Eagle.
In addition, an off-duty bar manager who lives in an apartment he rents from the Eagle was arrested in his home without a warrant, in clear violation of the rule established by the Supreme Court in Payton v. New York. (The bar manager was arrested for failing to maintain a permit for adult entertainment.)
The Legal Issues
Allegations regarding the use of excessive force and hate speech by the police are still under investigation, and the legal ramifications of those allegations will not be addressed on the website at the present time.
The facts already admitted by the police, however, are sufficient to show that the officers illegally searched and seized dozens of Eagle patrons who were not personally suspected of any involvement in criminal activity.
A more detailed discussion of the legal issues is presented here.
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