Protesters sue Salt Lake City, allege civil rights violations

The lawsuit stems from protests last year over the murder of George Floyd and alleges ‘evil or reckless intent’ from the city.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Police threaten to arrest a protester as they push crowds down 300 South on Saturday, May 30, 2020.

Fourteen Utahns have filed a civil rights lawsuit against Salt Lake City, alleging unlawful arrests and unreasonable use of force last year during local protests over the murder of George Floyd.

The events referenced in the complaint, which was filed Friday, allegedly occurred over the weekend of May 30, 2020. The complaint states several plaintiffs were injured by police without provocation, including two who were concussed and one whose vision was damaged. Others were arrested for failure to disperse after a curfew was implemented by Mayor Erin Mendenhall, the complaint states.

The plaintiffs argue that the curfew order was unconstitutional — violating their rights to freedom of speech and assembly — and they argue it had an “unlawful discriminatory intent based on race.” They seek punitive damages against the city and argue that the alleged actions, including unlawful arrests and unreasonable use of force, were “motivated by evil or reckless intent.”

The city had not filed a response to the complaint as of Monday evening, but a city spokesperson said the city’s curfew and actions were “proper and lawful” due to the nature of events during the protests.

“We are confident that the Mayor acted within her legal authority to issue the emergency curfew and the Salt Lake City Police Department acted appropriately during the civil unrest of May 30 and June 1,” the spokesperson said. Salt Lake City police deferred to the same statement.

Attorney Brian Jackson, who is representing all 14 plaintiffs, said that prior to the curfew order on May 30, 2020, Jackson attended the demonstration with his wife and daughters.

When he later saw that protesters were being arrested amid the curfew order, he posted on Twitter, offering free legal services to those taken into custody.

“As a Civil Rights Attorney in Utah, I decided I couldn’t sit on the sidelines and needed to play a part in this and help out,” Jackson said in an email.

Many of those arrested reached out to Jackson for legal help following his post, he said. But some also shared that they had been “shot during the protests with rubber bullets unprovoked,” Jackson said.

In a letter to the city prosecutor’s office, Jackson outlined the constitutional concerns he had. The office later announced it would not move forward on prosecuting protesters arrested on failure to disperse charges. He then began reviewing and assessing the use-of-force allegations he had received.

According to the complaint filed Friday, police shot one plaintiff in the face with a rubber bullet from a short distance of about 3 feet. Brogan Knebeo later woke up in a hospital with “a foreign object stuck in his eye and blood pressure built up behind his eye,” the complaint states. He continues to suffer from vision loss as well as a loss of work, medical expenses and PTSD, according to the complaint.

Another plaintiff, who served as a medic during a protest on June 1, 2020, said she was arrested despite the curfew order making an exception for emergency personnel, the complaint states. She said she identified herself to officers but was “shot unprovoked in the arm with rubber bullets from officers” and slammed to the ground by law enforcement before she was taken into custody.

In the complaint, she argues that she was never given a command to disperse and notes that her phone was seized and searched.

Jackson said the curfew order was entered without proper notice and before anyone could challenge its legality. The action left many protesters without a clear path to disperse, he said. One plaintiff alleged that he was pulled over and arrested while driving away, incurring a towing bill of nearly $250 without any probable cause for his arrest.

“We hope that moving forward Salt Lake City will be aware of and implement plans to ensure individual federal first amendment constitutional rights and procedures are realized before issuing sweeping policies that can violate those vital rights,” Jackson said in an email.

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