After a jury sided Friday with a woman who had sued Washington police officers for arresting her after she publicly criticized them, attorney Jeffrey Skinner of Goodwin Procter said he hopes the verdict will prompt a full investigation into the extent of "contempt-of-cop" arrests in the city.
Skinner, along with fellow Goodwin Procter attorneys Andrew Hudson and John Moustakas, represented Washington resident Lindsay Huthnance pro bono in her suit against the officers who arrested her, as well as the city’s Metropolitan Police Department.
The jury found the city and two officers who arrested Huthnance liable for $97,500 in damages for false arrest, emotional distress and a slew of constitutional violations committed in the course of her arrest and imprisonment; a third officer was not found liable. In addition to charges stemming directly from the arrest, she also charged the city with failing to properly train officers and take steps to stop unlawful “contempt-of-cop” arrests.
Skinner, in a phone interview Monday, said his team built their case against the city by reviewing hundreds of arrest reports filed the year before Huthnance’s arrest in November 2005. Of the nearly 900 arrest reports provided by the city – more than 100 reports were missing, Skinner said – the plaintiff’s experts determined that more than 30% contained errors or failed to make a case for probable cause.
The analysis of arrest reports provided “pretty strong proof that either the District wasn’t training [officers] properly, or it could also indicate MPD supervision was also lacking and deficient,” he said.
Police department spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump declined to comment on the case, but did confirm that the three officers charged remain employed by the city. Ariel Waldman, a spokesman for the city’s attorney general, also declined to comment.
Huthnance claimed she was arrested in November 2005 on a trumped-up charge in retaliation for publicly criticizing a group of police officers. According to her complaint, Huthnance had stopped inside a 7-Eleven around midnight when she spotted a group of officers inside. After asking the officers if any incident had happened in the neighborhood and, according to her complaint, receiving a rude response, Huthnance made a comment that she didn’t think it was a good use of her tax dollars for the officers to be standing around the 7-Eleven.
After a verbal exchange with officers inside and outside of the store, Huthnance was arrested on a charge of disturbing the peace, but claimed she never became belligerent or disorderly. She also accused the police of holding her in jail for several hours after she should have been released. At one point, she claimed, an officer told her she would be released if she would sit in her cell and “cry like a good girl.”
During the trial before U.S. District Court Chief Judge Royce Lamberth, the officers disputed Huthnance’s version of events. They claimed she was screaming obscenities and was so loud that she attracted the attention of passers-by and residents living across the street from the 7-Eleven.
After she was released from jail, Huthnance contacted the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital, which put her in touch with Goodwin Proctor and assisted during the trial. ACLU legal director Arthur Spitzer said Huthnance’s arrest highlights flaws in how the city has dealt with the problem of unlawful retaliation against individuals who speak out against the police.
“We’re glad that the jury was able to see the reality of what had happened to Ms. Huthnance and the reality about the District of Columbia’s failure to train and supervise officers about not making contempt-of-cop arrests,” Spitzer said in a phone interview Monday.
The verdict came one day after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled on March 24 that a man who was arrested on a disorderly conduct charge after calling a police officer a "fat slob" could move forward with a retaliatory arrest claim. More on this case from The National Law Journal's Leigh Jones can be found here.
Updated at 4:48 p.m. to correct the spelling of Goodwin Procter.