A protester stands near Franklin Square during Donald Trump's inauguration on Jan. 20.
A protester stands near Franklin Square during Donald Trump's inauguration on Jan. 20. Credit: Matt Cohen

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Five months after violent protests and acts of vandalism rocked downtown D.C. during President Donald Trump‘s inauguration on Jan. 20, the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit today against the District and its police department for alleged misconduct and rights violations that day.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of four individuals in the U.S. District Court for D.C., alleges that Metropolitan Police Department officers wrongly detained or used force against four people who were acting within the law. Two of the plaintiffs were protesters. The third and fourth plaintiffs attended the demonstrations respectively as a photojournalist and a “legal observer” documenting potential civil rights violations.

“Pepper spray and tear gas were used against all plaintiffs without justification and without warning,” the complaint says. “While [three of the individuals] were detained on a D.C. street corner and later in police transport vehicles, they were unreasonably denied food, water, and access to a toilet for periods ranging from seven to 16 hours; arresting officers unnecessarily prolonged the arrest process in order to keep detainees in a state of anxiety, hunger, thirst, and other discomfort.”

It goes on to note that two plaintiffs “were handcuffed so tightly” that one of those plaintiff’s wrists bled and the others’ fingers remained numb for months after the inauguration.” At a press conference at the ACLU of D.C. headquarters this afternoon, plaintiff Elizabeth Lagesse recalled that police repeatedly pepper sprayed the large group of people kettled at 12th and L Streets NW, even after they had been detained.

Another plaintiff, photojournalist Shay Horse, described his being pepper sprayed and detained “for just doing [his] job.” He says the group they kettled at 12th and L Streets were held for hours on end without food, water, or access to bathrooms. “We were packed together so tightly that people were beginning to freak out,” Horse says. “A few had panic attacks while others were openly weeping in fear and trying to cry out the effects of tear grass and pepper spray.” He described an area of the kettle that became a de facto “piss corner.” One woman, Horse recalls, told an officer she really needed to go to the bathroom and he responded “The only way to prove it is to shit your pants right now.”

The ACLU of D.C. alleges that two of their clients were “subjected to intrusive, humiliating, and unjustified manual rectal probing and grabbing of their testicles” during police processing. The plaintiffs are suing for damages and lawyers’ costs under the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, in part for bodily and emotional distress.

D.C. police arrested over 200 protesters during the day’s events. One has already been convicted on charges of felony rioting, and others have pled guilty to misdemeanors. Half a dozen officers were injured, and businesses suffered thousands of dollars in damages from violent behavior and projectiles.

In a statement, the Metropolitan Police Department continues to defend its response during the protests:

“Each year, the men and women of MPD protect the rights and ensure the safety of thousands of First Amendment demonstrations and protests. During the 58th Presidential Inauguration, there were thousands of individuals who exercised constitutional right to peacefully assemble and speak out for their cause. Unfortunately, there was another group of individuals who chose to engage in criminal acts, destroying property and hurling projectiles, injuring at least six officers. These individuals were ultimately arrested for their criminal actions, and the bulk of them are pending prosecution after being indicted by a grand jury. As with any pending criminal or civil matter, we will continue to support and respect the formal legal process. Moreover, all instances of use of force by officers and allegations of misconduct will be fully investigated. MPD remains committed to ensuring the public safety of all residents and visitors to [D.C.]”

“When there are groups of people who protest only peacefully, demonstrations that go off without a hitch, MPD does tend to handle those pretty well,” says Scott Michelman, ACLU of D.C.’s senior staff attorney. “They tend to be prepared and they tend to be respectful. The problem is, as we’ve seen over and over, when there’s a little bit of law breaking, the response from MPD is massive, it’s excessive, it’s unjustified, and it’s unconstitutional.”

The litigation isn’t likely to be the last time citizens hear about the Inauguration Day protests. In its budget for fiscal year 2018, the D.C. Council approved $150,000 for the independent Office of Police Complaints to review MPD policies and decisions related to the protests. It also isn’t the only lawsuit over the protests. 

As for the outcome of the lawsuit, Michelman says that they’re “ready to take this all the way to court,” but said the plaintiffs would be open to a settlement.