During the month of protests against police brutality in Philadelphia, more than 750 people were arrested for curfew violations, failure to disperse, and disorderly conduct. Many were handcuffed, taken to remote police districts, and kept in hot cars or buses for hours — some so long they urinated on themselves or began pleading for water. Then, they were released not with criminal charges but civil citations, the type of ticket given for high weeds or litter.
Less than a week after an Inquirer report on allegations the practice was a violation of free speech, Mayor Jim Kenney on Wednesday announced that all of the code-violation notices issued to protesters from May 30 to June 30 would be waived. (The decision has no bearing on cases involving criminal charges.)
“My decision to waive these violations is not a statement on the validity of the individual citations,” Kenney said in a statement. “Rather, it is a recognition of the core concerns that caused thousands to demonstrate on the streets of Philadelphia. In waiving these notices, I recognize that those issues are vitally important, that the pain of those marching is very real, and that their message — Black lives matter — needs to be heard every day until systemic racism is fully eradicated from this city and nation.”
City Solicitor Marcel S. Pratt added in a statement that pursuing the violations “would have served no useful purpose.”
Lawyers who had been organizing to help protesters contest the violations, led by Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE), said they believed most citations would have been tossed out, because few contained basic information to state probable cause for a violation.
PLSE attorney Taylor Pacheco said volunteer attorneys began submitting those appeals last week, and commended the mayor on stepping up and recognizing the importance of the moment.
On the other hand, she said, “I think it really does raise a question of whether or not there was any intention to the arrests besides interfering with the protests. As glad as we are to see these dismissed, we maintain that they never should have happened.”
Paul Hetznecker, a civil rights attorney who works with the Up Against the Law legal collective to represent protesters, said the city should go further and review its policies around arresting and citing protesters. In his view, the arrests were illegal whether or not the citations are waived, and could be grounds for civil rights lawsuits.
“Whether they want to admit it or not, the civil citations were in violation of the constitutional rights of all of those that participated in peaceful, lawful protest protected by the First Amendment,” he said. “This is a vindication of those protections.”
Kenney’s decision may do little to appease protesters like Steph Drain, an organizer and community college student who wants to see drastically reduced funding to the Philadelphia police. Drain was arrested at the Municipal Services Building in June, placed in handcuffs, taken to a police station about three miles away from the protest, and given a ticket for failure to disperse.