October 03, 2011

Former Editor Sues Philadelphia Police for Constitutional Violations in Her Arrest

... by Walter Brasch

A former managing editor for the online newspaper, OpEdNews, has sued the city of Philadelphia and eight of its police officers for violating her Constitutional rights.

Cheryl Biren-Wright, Pennsauken, N.J., charges the defendants with violating her 1st, 4th, and 14th amendment rights. The civil action, filed in the U.S. District Court, Philadelphia, is based upon her arrest during a peaceful protest Sept. 12, 2009, at the Army Experience Center (AEC) in the Franklin Mills Mall.

According to the complaint, Biren-Wright, who was not a part of the demonstration but at the mall as a reporter-photographer, was arrested and charged with failure to disperse and conspiracy, second degree misdemeanors. The charges were subsequently dropped by the Philadelphia district attorney.

The Philadelphia police also arrested and charged six protestors with conspiracy and failure to disperse - Elaine Brower, 55, New York, N.Y.; Richie Marini, 35, Staten Island, N.Y.; Joan Pleune, 70, Brooklyn, N.Y.(one of the original Freedom Riders in 1961); Beverly Rice, 72, New York, N.Y.; Debra Sweet, 57, Brooklyn, N.Y.; and Sarah Wellington, 26, Piermont, N.Y. Two months after Biren-Wright's case was dropped, the six protestors were found not guilty in Philadelphia Municipal Court.

Paul J. Hetznecker, who represented the six defendants in the criminal trial, and Biren-Wright in her civil suit, believes that police over-reaction to protestors, as well as their lack of knowledge or appreciation for Constitutional protections, may be "a systemic problem throughout the country." Hetznecker says under Constitutional and state law, "There can not be an arbitrary and capricious decision to end the civil rights of the protestors."

The civil suit complaint charges that police violated Biren-Wright's First Amendment rights to "gather information ... to cover a matter of public interest including the law enforcement activity in public places." Actions by the police deprived her of 4th and 14th amendment rights that, according to the complaint, protect against "unreasonable search and seizure," "loss of physical liberty," and "freedom from excessive use of unreasonable and justified force."

The suit lists six separate counts:

  • Abridgement of her rights under the First Amendment to observe and record news in a public place.
  • False arrest and imprisonment
  • Use of excessive force by the police.
  • False arrest under state law
  • Common Law Assault under state law
  • Failure of the City of Philadelphia to adequately train and supervise its police. The complaint charges that because of accepted practices, the defendants may have believed "that their actions would not be properly investigated by supervisory officers and that the misconduct would not be investigated or sanctioned, but would be tolerated." The policy, according to the complaint, "demonstrates a deliberate indifference on the part of the policymakers of the City of Philadelphia, to the constitutional rights of persons within the City, and were the cause of the violations of the Plaintiff's rights...."

Named in the suit in addition to the City of Philadelphia are Lt. Dennis Konczyk, officers Tyrone Wiggins, John Logan, Robert Anderson, Donald West, William Stuski, and two unnamed John Does.

The Philadelphia Police Department refused to comment about the suit as a matter of policy regarding "issues in court," according to Jillian Russell, Department spokesperson.

In August 2008, the Army opened the AEC, a 14,500 square foot "virtual educational facility" with dozens of video games. The Center, deliberately located near an indoor skateboard park, replaced five more traditional recruiting offices, and was designated as a two-year pilot program. The initial cost was $12 million.

Army recruiters could not actively recruit children under 17, but could talk with the teens and answer any of their questions about the Army. Among the virtual games was one in which children as young as 13 could ride a stationary Humvee and shoot a simulated M-16 rifle at life-like video images of Muslims and terrorists.

Because of the emphasis upon war, and a requirement that all persons had to sign in at the center, thus allowing the recruiters to follow-up as much as four or five years later, peace activists began speaking out against the AEC.

To counter what was quickly becoming a public relations problem, the Army sent out news releases, picked up by the mainstream media, and established a full social media campaign to explain the "benefits" of the AEC. The protests continued.

Elaine Brower, whose son was in Iraq on his third tour of duty, told OpEdNews a day after her arrest: "The AEC is giving guns to 13-year-olds, drawing them in with violent video games. As more and more Afghan civilians and U.S. military are being killed in the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, we're saying 'no' to these wars. We've got to stop the flow of youth into the military, where they're being used to commit war crimes in our name."

With a police permit, and escorted by officers from Philadelphia's Civil Affairs Unit, about 200-250 protestors-most of them middle-aged or senior citizens, many of them veterans-had come to the AEC, believing their First Amendment rights were being protected. The protest, although noisy at times, was peaceful; the counter-demonstration wasn't.

According to the complaint, "The counter-demonstrators [members of an organization known as The Gathering of Eagles] yelled, jeered and taunted the AEC protestors. At no time did [the police] direct, or attempt to limit the First Amendment activities of the counter-demonstrators," nor were they ever told to disperse.

Throughout the demonstration, the protestors had not given any indication that they posed any physical threat to others. However, about 45 minutes after the demonstration began, the police, under direction of Lt. Konczyk, ordered the protestors to disperse.

At that point, Biren-Wright, according to the complaint, "placed herself outside the immediate area ... so as not to interfere with the police activity." She continued to photograph and report on the demonstration. The complaint charges that Lt. Konczyk, "without just cause or legal justification," directed several officers to arrest her, walking past several protestors and counter-demonstrators. She says she told the officers she was a member of the press. At no time, she says, did she participate as a demonstrator nor verbally or physically threaten anyone. The officers, says Biren-Wright, arrested her without any warning. The arresting officer's "degree of anger-he was clearly red-faced-was inappropriate," she recalls. The police, says Biren-Wright, "were clearly targeting me, trying to keep me from recording the demonstration and their reactions."

One officer, says Biren-Wright, "unnecessarily twisted my arm." Another officer seized her camera and personal items. One of the officers put plastic cuffs on her wrists "so tight that it caused significant pain, swelling and bruising, and an injury that lasted for several weeks," according to the complaint.

Biren-Wright's 15-year-old daughter was shopping in the mall during the protest, but had reunited with her mother shortly before the arrests. Her daughter, says Biren-Wright, "came closer upon the arrest and I told the officer she was my daughter and a minor and would be alone." The officer, says Biren-Wright, snapped, "You should have thought of that before." At the processing center that police had previously set up at the mall, Biren-Wright told several officers that her daughter was alone in the mall and was from out of state. "None of them did anything to ensure her safety," she says. The daughter, unsupervised, eventually found Rob Kall, OpEdNews editor, who drove her to the jail to take her mother's keys and then drove her home, where she spent the night alone.

Outside the mall, counter-protestors shouted obscenities as those arrested boarded the police bus. "They were standing at the door to the bus," says Biren-Wright, "and posed a safety issue to us since we were in handcuffs."

The six who were arrested and Biren-Wright were initially taken to the 15th District jail. Richie Marini, the lone male arrested, was kept at the district jail. The six women were transferred to the jail at the jail of the Philadelphia Police headquarters, known by locals as the "Roundhouse," where a nurse took each woman's vital signs and asked if there were any injuries. "I showed him my wrist and thumb that were already red and swollen" from the restrictive handcuffs, says Biren-Wright. His response, she says, was "That doesn't count."

Biren-Wright, along with the other five women, was held for 14 hours. At 5 a.m., she says, they were released from the "Roundhouse" onto a dark and barren street-there were no taxis anywhere near-and locked out of the police station. Although the women had cell phones, they had not been allowed to call for rides while in the jail area. Outside, they called friends, but waited until help arrived. Marini was released from the district jail later that morning.

The only reason Biren-Wright's pictures of the demonstration survived is because she had secretly removed the memory chip during the arrest. When the camera was finally returned, "all of the settings were messed up and the lens was not replaced properly."

The Army closed the AEC at the end of the pilot program. It had claimed that because of increased enlistments nationwide, the Center was no longer needed. It never acknowledged that the protestors and the public reaction may have been a reason for the closing.

In an unrelated case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled in October 2010 [Kelly v. Borough of Carlisle] that recording police activity in public places is protected by Constitutional guarantees. This month, the ACLU settled a case, for $48,500, in Pittsburgh when a University of Pittsburgh police officer arrested Elijah Matheny and charged him with felony violation of the state's Wiretap Act for using a cell phone to record police activity. Matheny spent a night in jail following his arrest. [See: Matheny v. County of Allegheny, et al.] The ACLU charged that the district attorney's office "had engaged in a pattern of erroneously advising law enforcement that audio taping police officers in public violates Pennsylvania's Wiretap Act." Following the Third Circuit's decision in the Kelly case, a conviction against Matheny is expected to be overturned.

The arrests in Philadelphia, Carlisle, and Pittsburgh underscores two major problems, both prevalent throughout the country. The first problem is a lack of understanding and respect for the Constitution by a large number, although not a majority, of police officers. For that reason, all police forces and district attorneys offices, from small isolated rural communities to the largest urban departments, need to have constant education about civil rights and Constitutional guarantees—and the penalties for violating those rights.

The second major problem is inherent within the mass media. Reporters need to know how and when to challenge authority to protect their own and the public's rights. A camera crew from the PBS "Frontline" series was at the protest, but abruptly stopped recording the demonstration after Brower was arrested and either before or during Biren-Wright's arrest. Rob Kall later said that a member of the "Frontline" crew told him the police informed them they would be arrested if they continued to film the demonstration.

Police threats, which violate Constitutional guarantees, place a "chilling effect" upon the media to observe and record actions by public officials. Even without a direct order by a public official, reporters may do what they perceive to be what others want them to do. The media, like police and public officials, also need constant education to know when police orders are lawful and when they are not. An order to move away from a scene may be lawful. An order to stop filming a scene upon threat of arrest is not.

In federal court, in the case of Biren v. City of Philadelphia, et al., these issues, and others, will be raised. But had there been an understanding of the Constitution by the police, the case would never have gotten to the point of a federal civil suit.

[Walter Brasch is a former newspaper and magazine reporter and editor. He is author of 17 books, the most recent one Before the First Snow: Tales from the Revolution, journalistic fiction about the counter-culture as seen through the eyes of a "flower child" and the reporter who covered her story for three decades. The book is available through www.greeleyandstone.com or amazon.com]

Posted by Walter Brasch at October 3, 2011 12:00 AM | Civil Liberties | Technorati links |


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