Judge denies harassment claim
Ben Fox, of the volunteer group Everybody's Kitchen, stands by the group's bus under the Bloomfield Bridge, ready to cook and hand out free meals, before police ordered the group to move on Monday.
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A federal judge yesterday said that he would not stop Pittsburgh police from enforcing the law to placate two groups who claimed city officers repeatedly harassed them as they prepared to protest against the G-20 summit.
Three Rivers Climate Convergence and Seeds of Peace Collective filed a lawsuit against the Pittsburgh Police Bureau on Monday, claiming that they had been targeted by officers in a systematic attempt to harass them and deprive them of their First Amendment rights.
They asked U.S. District Judge Gary L. Lancaster to grant them a temporary restraining order to prohibit the city from stopping members of the group and asking for identification without a warrant or probable cause.
However, after a hearing yesterday, Judge Lancaster ruled in favor of the Pittsburgh police, noting the heightened security necessary for G-20.
"I will not enjoin the city from enforcing these laws against anyone," he said.
In his ruling, Judge Lancaster said that just because Seeds of Peace members are in Pittsburgh to help advance free speech "does not give them immunity from local traffic and zoning laws."
He did say, though, that his decision did not preclude the lawsuit from moving forward for monetary damages.
Continuing he said, "To be clear, we are not here to determine if constitutional violations have occurred."
Members of Seeds of Peace -- a Montana-based group that cooks and provides free meals to demonstrators -- have had four run-ins with city police since Friday.
They have had their bus towed for parking violations; been stopped for loitering while walking to a residence where they were staying; and been forced to move their retrofitted school bus from two spots where they said they previously had permission from the property owners to stay.
"It's hard to imagine a situation where a peaceful group that makes food ... could attract this much firepower and police attention and not be harassment," said Witold Walczak, the legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
Late on Sunday night, police raided a property on North Neville Street in Lawrenceville, even though the Seeds of Peace group had permission from the lease holder to park there.
By Monday, the group was told it could not stay because the city building inspector had visited the owner and threatened to issue fines of $1,000 a day.
The group then made arrangements to move the bus to the old Lincoln-Larimer school, which is privately owned.
When members moved the bus Monday evening, the driver was stopped 20 yards from his destination for what police called a traffic stop and safety inspection.
The bus and group members were held for two hours with dozens of police cars surrounding the area. The city's commercial vehicle enforcement unit arrived and did a full inspection of the bus.
Bridget Coine, who was working as a legal observer for the ACLU at the traffic stop, said she'd never seen so many officers at one scene.
A police officer repeatedly asked the Seeds of Peace members how they paid for the food that they cooked and where they got money for fuel.
"He kept saying 'if you provide free food and accept donations, and you're doing it across state lines, it's interstate commerce,' " Ms. Coine said.
No violations were found, but the group was cited for parking on a curb and told that the vehicle could not be moved unless the driver had a passenger-class certification.
A Port Authority driver moved the bus into the school lot later in the evening.
However, according to Lisa Stolarski who is with Three Rivers Climate Convergence, the property owner -- who had been out of reach earlier in the evening -- arrived on site about 2 a.m. with police officers. Though the owner said earlier that he was excited to have the collective there, he changed his story, Ms. Stolarski said.
"He said he did not give permission," she said. "Neighbors were complaining. The media was calling him constantly. The neighbors were calling constantly, and the scenario was too much."
The property owner gave Seeds of Peace until noon yesterday to move the bus.
"The city of Pittsburgh has made it impossible for this bus to go anywhere," Mr. Walczak said.
Then, just minutes after Judge Lancaster issued his ruling, about 20 city police officers arrived in the parking lot of Trinity Lutheran Church on the North Side, where Seeds of Peace members had again moved their bus.
The pastor gave them permission to park there. But the group said police claimed the right to enter the property under eminent domain laws because of an adjacent city alleyway.
One member said police then accused them of failing to have Allegheny County tags for two dogs that travel with the group.
"All we have been planning on doing is cooking food -- but we've been shut down over and over again," said Peter Dolan, who also testified at the hearing.
Mr. Walczak said he believed police are attempting to provoke the protesters and said yesterday's ruling by Judge Lancaster would likely embolden them.
"The legal niceties aren't that important. We're in G-20 land," Mr. Walczak said.
He predicted a raid on the latest bus location sometime overnight.
"At every turn the city is harassing, discouraging or impeding demonstrators. And these are the peaceful ones who sought permits," Mr. Walczak said.
The city called three police officers to testify during the hearing, including the one who led the raid on the Lawrenceville property Sunday night and the one who stopped the group members as they walked early Monday.
Both officers said they had not been given any instruction from their supervisors to specifically target the Seeds of Peace.
Instead, Sgt. Jason Snyder, who led the Lawrenceville raid, said he was part of a G-20 Mobile Field Force for the city and was simply given a list of addresses for his group to target late Sunday. "We were told to look for any illegal activity," he said.
"So you have no idea how that property got on that list?" asked Jules Lobel, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
"I do not," Sgt. Snyder said.
Following the judge's opinion, members of the activist groups announced their displeasure.
"I'm here to tell you, democracy is dead in Pittsburgh," said Lisa Fithian, who is working with Three Rivers Climate Convergence.
The plaintiffs showed a clear pattern of harassment by city officers, Mr. Lobel said.
"All they came up with is two traffic citations. It seems like they would have better things to do," he said.
"These are the peaceful, law-abiding groups," Mr. Walczak added.
"I can only imagine what they'll do to folks engaged in civil disobedience."
First Published September 23, 2009 12:00 am