Vegan Protesters Prevail Over Cops in Court
(APN) ATLANTA — On Thursday, September 24, 2009, a federal jury in Atlanta ruled that the Dekalb County Department of Homeland Security and the Dekalb Police Department violated the constitutional rights of two vegan protesters when they arrested the protesters in conjunction with an action the protesters held at a Honey Baked Ham in 2003.
Six years ago on December 20, 2003, about 15 vegans held a protest at the Honey Baked Ham store on Buford Highway at North Druid Hills road. Caitlin Childs and Christopher Freeman, two of the protesters, were leafleting the crowd about pork alternatives. They saw an individual at a drug store close by, taking pictures of the demonstration in a civilian car in street clothes. They wrote down the make, model, color, and license plate number of the car.
When they left the demonstration, the car started following them.
The two pulled into the parking lot of a Mexican restaurant and the car also pulled into the lot.
“A man who I later learned was from the office of Homeland Security blocked us in,” Childs told Atlanta Progressive News.
“A police motorcycle pulled up and the Homeland Security officer, Gorman, came up to the car door and attempted to open the car door. The doors were locked. He asked us to get out of the car and he asked for the piece of paper,” Childs recalled.
“I said, ‘No, I don’t know who you are and even if you are a police officer I have the right to oversee your activities,'” Childs recalled.
“They stopped my clients not because they had committed any criminal act. They were stopped for writing down the tag of the person taking their picture,” Gerry Weber, Attorney at Law, told APN.
Weber took on the case when he was working at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Georgia; since then he has gone into private practice and also works at the Southern Center for Human Rights; however, he continued to represent the protesters.
After Childs refused to turn over the piece of paper, the officers asked Childs and Freeman for identification.
“Chris clearly told him his identification was in the right pocket of his backpack and when he went for it they grabbed him and slammed him on the car,” Childs continued.
“Chris had asked for their identification before he would show them his,” Childs said.
“Then they walked him to the wall and asked me to sit on the wall 10 to 15 feet away from him and for 30 minutes they kept asking for the information about the tag.” They were very derogatory according to Childs.
After they had been in the parking lot for a while, other officers arrived.
The original two officers were identified as Mark Maphet of the Dekalb Police Department, and David Gorman who they later found out was working for Homeland Security of Dekalb County.
After 30 minutes they handcuffed and took both of them to the country jail for disorderly conduct.
“At the county jail… the officer that transported me told the woman who was doing the intake that I could not have the paper with information on the tag… because that was why I was arrested,” Childs said.
Childs–who, as previously reported by Atlanta Progressive News, is intersex–requested a female officer if she was to be searched, a request which was ignored, according to Weber.
They were released shortly thereafter on bail for around 300 dollars per person. Caitlin Childs claims she initially did not get back her house keys or the paper on which the number of the vehicle following her was written. Weber says she later got her keys back but not the piece of paper.
The charges against Childs and Freeman were never pursued.
Childs and Freeman regarded this incident as an infringement of their free speech. The officers would not tell them why they had been pulled over. A year later, a friend mentioned the case to someone at the ACLU.
“We sent them a write up of the arrest and they said they were interested,” Childs said.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued in September 2005 for false arrest, false imprisonment, harassment, and violation of Constitutional rights by the Homeland Security Division of DeKalb County and the DeKalb County Police Department.
“The district court concluded that the case should be tried to a jury,” the ACLU said in a statement. “The defendants appealed that decision but the United States Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court in July 2008.”
Weber also felt the vegan organization should not have been under surveillance. Moreover, “two citizens have the same right to watch Homeland Security as they have to watch citizens,” Weber said.
Gorman said he had instructions to monitor and take pictures of the protest. As part of the Homeland Security of Dekalb County founded in 2001, Gorman claimed the car was also used in an anti-gang unit and he did not want his vehicle exposed.
The jury trial before Federal Judge Jack Camp lasted four days.
David Gorman was found by the jury to have violated the Fourth Amendment rights of Childs and Freeman. The arrest was illegal. The Officer acted with “malice of reckless indifference” to the protected rights of citizens.
Mark Maphet of the Dekalb Police Department–who has since retired from the police force–was also sued in Federal court but was not convicted.
“Officer Maphet was on the scene throughout the arrest. It makes no sense that if one officer is found guilty of violating 4th amendment rights the other one would not be. They were tried together. I have no idea why they did not convict,” Childs said.
The jurors awarded $1 in compensatory damages and $1 in punitive damage each to the two, for a total award of four dollars.
The officer’s lawyer, Howard Indermark, said the small compensation was a win.
The judgment for his clients was a win for civil liberties, according to Weber. He will ask for reimbursement as is customary for his attorney fees from the Department of Homeland Security and Dekalb County.
The ACLU considered this is a win for citizens engaged in peaceful protest. They should not be harassed by Homeland Security, the FBI, or local police, they said in a written statement. “This case was never about money. It was about vindication and the jury said that the Constitution was violated. Would we have wished for more money? Yes,” Weber said.
Previously, Atlanta Progressive News published an article in 2006, when the Pentagon was found to have been spying on local peace activists nationwide, for which there was no legal justification. The ACLU found through a public records request that the vegan protesters along with several Georgia activists had been systematically spied upon.
At that point, members of US Congress were calling for investigation of the activities.
“The protests that we have evidence of spying of… are all those who oppose the Administration’s policies,” Weber said to APN in 2006.
“The ACLU has released pages of reports and color photos assembled by the DeKalb County Police Department of a vegan protest against animal cruelty at a local Honey Baked Ham Store,” APN reported at the time.
“I think it was an important case. I am proud that for six years what I have done, I hope, will help people who are filing cases for police misconduct,” Childs said.
About the author:
Alice Gordon is a Staff Writer for Atlanta Progressive News and is reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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