Judge hears arguments in lawsuits against Trump, Barr over Lafayette Square

A federal judge heard arguments Friday in four lawsuits against former President Donald Trump, former Attorney General William Barr and various police agencies for allegedly violating protesters’ constitutional rights last year at Lafayette Square.

The ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Black Lives Matter D.C. and several protesters after police used tear gas, rubber bullets and flashbang shells to break up their protest over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis police custody.

The dispersal, which came less than an hour before a citywide curfew went into effect, was part of the security measures taken for Mr. Trump to walk to the nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church where he posed with a Bible for a photo-op. The curfew was implemented after days of protests that ended in violence, vandalism, looting and fires.

Plaintiffs argued they had been peacefully protesting at the square near the White House when they were subjected to a targeted “attack” in violation of their First Amendment right to assemble and their Fourth Amendment right to be free from unlawful seizure.

Other defendants named in the lawsuits include Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, the U.S. Secret Service, the U.S. Park Police, the D.C. National Guard, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the Metropolitan Police Department and the Arlington County Police Department.

U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich listened to nearly two hours of oral arguments during the hearing on the defendants’ motions to dismiss all four suits.

John Martin, an attorney on behalf of the Department of Justice, argued that securing an area for the President is a matter of national security.

“Presidential security is a paramount government interest that weighs heavily in the Fourth Amendment balance,” Mr. Martin said.

He added that qualified immunity protects both the government and law enforcement officials from liability for actions that courts have not “clearly established” as unlawful. 

“No officer has ever been denied qualified immunity for his efforts to clear a public area,” Mr. Martin said.

In regard to the judge’s assertion that the protest was peaceful, Mr. Martin said federal officers are not violating the First Amendment “by moving protesters a few blocks, even if the protesters are predominantly peaceful.”

Attorneys for the plaintiffs, however, said various protesters were injured by the officers who used excessive force despite being unprovoked. 

“Law enforcement advanced on the peaceful protesters, spraying them with tear gas, cutting them with rubber bullets, dropping smoke bombs and incendiary grenades, and using batons and shields … like weapons to literally club those in their path, your honor,” said Randy Mastro, an attorney from the ACLU of the District of Columbia.

Mr. Mastro showed the judge photos and videos of police deploying the chemical irritants on the demonstrators.

“What was it like for the protesters fleeing that scene in harm? Many of them [were] injured, fearing for their lives,” he said. “There is a brief glimpse of what it was.

The excessive use of force, he said, was due in part to Mr. Trump’s tweets calling the protesters “domestic terrorists and enemies of the United States.”

“[I]t appears from the president’s own words that these protesters were targeted because of their viewpoint, their message, their speech” Mr. Mastro said.

The judge said she expects to issue a ruling soon on whether to dismiss the four lawsuits.

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