Updated 2:35 p.m.
Lawyers for the District of Columbia this month revealed that an unidentified police officer or city official attempted to destroy evidence in a long-running suit over arrests made during a demonstration at Pershing Park in 2002.
The plaintiffs' lawyers, representing a group of people who said they were arrested while observing the protest at the park, want the District to explain why the city waited more than ten weeks before disclosing the attempted destruction of the evidence at a hearing earlier this month.
The evidence central to the dispute in Washington federal district court is a "resume" that documented police activity on the day in question in September 2002. The city for years said it did not have the data. In May, lawyers for the District announced an outside contractor found the information on a back-up server.
At a hearing July 12, District lawyers said an unidentified city employee attempted to erase the data in February 2003, according to the lawyers for the plaintiffs. (Earlier coverage of the litigation is here and here.)
The plaintiffs' lawyers, including George Washington University Law School professor Jonathan Turley and Daniel Schwartz of Bryan Cave, said in court papers filed late Sunday (PDF) that the city was aware of the attempted evidence destruction back in May but failed to say anything then.
Schwartz and Turley said in Sunday's court papers that Magistrate Judge John Facciola should order the city's lawyers to explain the delay in telling the court and counsel "about a clear criminal effort to destroy evidence in this case."
Lawyers for the plaintiffs said they are concerned "about the preservation of evidence and the conflict of interest created by the District's decision to have the MPD itself investigate this apparent criminal act."
A spokesman for the city Office of the Attorney General, Ariel Waldman, senior counsel to Attorney General Irvin Nathan, said the District will file a response in court. Waldman declined to comment on the plaintiffs' demands.
Witnesses and evidence could be subjected to "undue influence and pressure" that could affect the city's liability and the resolution of the suit, the plaintiffs' attorneys said. They said the District's internal investigation of the attempted erasure of the data should be stopped to allow a third-party agency, outside of the police department, to investigate.
"While referral to the Justice Department may be appropriate and necessary to resolve this criminal conduct, the evidence must be protected in a manner that allows the plaintiffs to move forward in this case," the plaintiffs' lawyers said. "This case already has a long history of evidence destruction and false statements by District officials, including counsel."
The plaintiffs' lawyers said the attempted destruction of the police data occurred one day after then-Chief Charles Ramsey testified before the D.C. Council about his role in the arrests at Pershing Park. Ramsey, one of several former or current police defendants in the case, denied any involvement in the decisions to make the arrests.
Facciola said July 12 he wants to hold an evidentiary hearing in August or September.