ACLU Files Federal Lawsuit in Unconstitutional Raid of Detroit Art Gallery

February 18, 2010

Detroit – The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a federal lawsuit today challenging the Detroit Police Department's 2008 raid of the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit. During the raid more than one hundred innocent people were detained, searched, and charged with loitering. In addition, more than 40 legally parked cars were seized and not released until their owners paid nearly $1000.

The ACLU of Michigan represents13 individuals who were ticketed and/or had their cars impounded, including four parents who owned the cars that were driven to the CAID. The lawsuit asks a federal court to put an end to the DPD’s practice of punishing innocent people merely for being present at a peaceful social gathering.

"In a free country, the police may not conduct commando-style raids on innocent people and seize their property without justification," said Michael J. Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU of Michigan. "We are filing this lawsuit so that what happened at this Detroit art gallery never happens again."

On May 31, 2008, approximately 130 members of CAID gathered for Funk Night, a well-publicized monthly event featuring music and dancing from midnight to 5 a.m. Shortly after 2 a.m. Detroit police officers, dressed entirely in black, with their faces masked and guns drawn, stormed into the CAID and ordered everyone present to lie face down. Many of the CAID's patrons were standing in the back yard and were forced to lie with their faces in the mud.

Those who asked questions, including a lawyer, or did not move fast enough were kicked to the ground by police officers. The officers then separated men and women and searched them all, issuing each a misdemeanor citation for “loitering in a place of illegal occupation.” The officers also seized the cars of anyone who had driven to the CAID under Michigan's "nuisance abatement" statute. In total, approximately 130 loitering citations were issued and more than 40 vehicles were seized. The raid uncovered no illegal drugs or weapons.

In August 2008, after ACLU filed court papers to dismiss the criminal cases against the CAID’s patrons, the City of Detroit agreed to drop all charges. Nonetheless, the police refused to release most of the patrons' cars unless they paid $900 plus towing and storage fees.

“We were there to have a good time with friends in the city. We had no idea what was going on when the police came in yelling with their guns pointed at us. There was a lot of confusion and a lot of fear,” said Ian Mobley, a college student from Grosse Ile. Ian's car was seized and impounded during the raid, even though he had parked about a mile away and walked to the CAID from a friend’s house.

The police contend that the raid occurred because the CAID lacked the proper licenses to operate that night. However, the police had no reason to believe the CAID's patrons knew that Funk Night was not properly licensed or that they went to the CAID to engage in illegal activity.

“The City of Detroit is riding roughshod over the Bill of Rights by seizing cars from innocent people and refusing to return them unless they pay a $900 ransom,” said Steinberg. “This practice is the ultimate Motor City shakedown.”

The ACLU of Michigan’s lawsuit asks the court to declare that the City of Detroit and the Detroit Police Department violated the CAID patrons’ Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures and their Fourteenth Amendment right to due process of law. Several plaintiffs have also accused the law enforcement officers of using excessive force.

In addition to Steinberg, the CAID patrons are represented by ACLU Cooperating Attorneys William H. Goodman, Julie H. Hurwitz and Kathryn Bruner James, ACLU of Michigan Staff Attorney Dan Korobkin, and ACLU of Michigan Executive Director Kary Moss.

UPDATE: A federal judge agreed with us and ruled the 2008 raid in which 130 innocent CAID patrons were detained and their cars impounded unconstitutional. Police had no evidence that the patrons had broken the law and no illegal drugs or weapons were uncovered during the raid. Read more...

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