The 36th District Court dealt a blow to the City of Detroit’s criminal prosecution of Black Lives Matter protesters who were arrested during last year’s anti-police demonstrations. Judge Larry Williams, Jr. dismissed without prejudice 39 cases against 28 defendants on Thursday.
The precedent could be used to dismiss cases for hundreds of other defendants appearing before different judges. The ruling could also play into a federal civil rights complaint against the city made by the Detroit Will Breathe protest group.
“This is the first dismissal of a large group of cases en masse, specifically for the failure of the city to provide discovery of information necessary to prepare a defensive trial,” says John Royal, president of the National Lawyers Guild chapter in Detroit. He is representing the defendants in court.
Hundreds of protesters in Detroit were arrested in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. The largely-peaceful demonstrations continued almost daily for months, gaining momentum following Detroit police’s killing of Hakim Littleton among other officer-involved shootings of residents. Protests also erupted to prevent students from attending summer school during the coronavirus pandemic.
A legal team led by Royal moved to dismiss the cases based on the prosecution’s failure to provide discovery. City prosecutors could reinstate the cases if they provide certain evidence requested by the defense. Prosecuting attorney Shannon Walker, who is assistant corporation counsel for the City of Detroit, did not return a call for comment for this story.
“(Judge Williams) made his ruling based on the fact that the city cannot identify who the actual arresting officers were in most of these cases and cannot identify what happened to any police bodycam footage that would have been taken at the time of the arrest of the defendants,” says Royal.
Many demonstrators arrested last summer were booked as a group after being brought to the Detroit Detention Center and Little Caesars Arena. Royal says in those instances, a single officer would usually write the arrest report.
“Many of these protesters were arrested without probable cause,” says Royal. “Some were severely injured and beaten by Detroit police in the course of being arrested.”
The National Lawyers Guild is part of a broader coalition offering legal resources to several hundred protesters who were arrested during last year’s protests in Detroit. Many have received civil infractions and misdemeanor charges related to traffic violations.
Detroit Will Breathe is taking Judge Williams’ ruling as a win, calling it a “vindication of the broader struggle for racial justice and liberation” on social media. The group has been a leading force in mobilizing the city’s protest movement, and have focused the call to “Defund the Police” towards specific policy goals like ending the Detroit Police Department’s Project Green Light surveillance program and use of facial recognition technology.
“This shows the power of collective action because we all stood together in solidarity as a defense strategy,” says Sammie Lewis, one of the organizers of Detroit Will Breathe. She received misdemeanor charges during last year’s protests. “We’re definitely feeling pretty celebratory, but we also know there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
Detroit Will Breathe’s federal lawsuit against the city claims DPD unlawfully used tear gas, chokeholds and rubber bullets to break up marches and gatherings in 2020. The excessive force allegations are paired with First Amendment right violation complaints. The city responded with its own countersuit, claiming the group had engaged in a civil conspiracy.
“If you come to our city and you’re going to be disruptive, you will be arrested,” Police Chief James Craig said during a press conference following arrests last August. “I’m not talking about freedom of speech. We’re talking about any effort to destroy property, injure officers and citizens. We will not tolerate it.”