Last Scheduled Brooklyn Bridge Case, Like Most Others, Is Dismissed
Above: The Occupy Wall Street protest on the Brooklyn Bridge in October 2011. Of 732 arrests, 680 cases have been dismissed. Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times
Note: There were two incidents that helped to spark the early days of the Occupy Movement. One was the pepper spraying of two women who were already under arrest without cause, the other was the arrest of more than 700 people on the Brooklyn Bridge. From the videos it looked like the police were leading the protesters onto the bridge, then they trapped them with police on both sides and made 700 arrests. Now, two years later of the 732 arrests that day, 690 have been dismissed. There is a civil suit pending against the NY police for these mass arrests.
Two years after more than 700 people were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge roadway for participating in an Occupy Wall Street march, the last scheduled criminal case found its way to a courtroom in Manhattan this month.
Jonathan Stribling-Uss, a 32-year-old lawyer, stood up in front of a judge, ready to contest his arrest that day.
“In a very understated way, the prosecutor said they didn’t have the evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Mr. Stribling-Uss recalled.
And just like that, his case ended as so many had before: with a dismissal.
Of the 732 arrests made on the Brooklyn Bridge, 680 cases were dismissed, 195 at the request of prosecutors, 40 by the court and 445 contingent on defendants’ not being arrested again within six months. The district attorney declined to prosecute 21 cases. Six people pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, prosecutors said, five were convicted at trial and two were acquitted. One case was resolved with a plea in a separate case. Warrants have been issued for the 17 remaining defendants who have failed to show up for court dates; it is unclear when or if those cases will be resolved.
“From an administrative and justice perspective, this was obviously a challenge,” Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, said. “I’m proud that the office handled the cases in a fair and evenhanded way.”
The mass arrests, which gave rise to a class action civil rights lawsuit and a long-running court battle exploring whether social media messages are public or private, created a logistical challenge. Defendants attended a special trial part run by a single judge that was created solely to handle Occupy cases.
Even before the bridge march, the district attorney had established a new post, mass arrest coordinator, assisted by three prosecutors and four paralegals, said Karen Friedman Agnifilo, executive assistant district attorney and chief of the trial division. Those lawyers handled the Brooklyn Bridge cases, even those in which only summonses were issued.
The aim, Ms. Friedman Agnifilo said, was to provide the same level of due process in every case. She said that prosecutors scrutinized arrest paperwork and police videos, sometimes questioning officers who appeared in photographs to determine whether specific protesters had been warned not to go onto the roadway.
“We looked at every single case individually and would prosecute if we had a provable case,” she said.
Ultimately, cases turned on whether it could be shown that defendants knew they were breaking the law. In one case, a man who was videotaped asking a captain what charges he would face was ultimately convicted. And although a police captain issued a warning through a megaphone, many said it was unintelligible. In dozens of other cases, prosecutors asked that they be dismissed when arresting officers could not identify defendants or testify about their actions.
The vast caseload was also unusual for members of the National Lawyers Guild, said Ben Meyers, who served as the group’s mass defense office coordinator, a position that was created after the bridge arrests.
Mr. Meyers said that 45 volunteer lawyers represented 662 defendants without charge, with most lawyers taking up to 10 cases and some taking as many as 50 or over 100. Collectively, he said, those lawyers made about 1,500 appearances during 87 court dates.
The arrests quickly became a flash point: protesters said that the police led them to believe that they could walk on the roadway; police officials strongly denied that. And both police and protesters pointed to videos to support their accounts.
Three days after the arrests, the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court in Manhattan saying that those arrested had been entrapped. Judge Jed S. Rakoff later excluded the City of New York, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly from the case but allowed it to proceed against officers at the scene because, he said, the police did not adequately warn protesters before arresting them.
Another continuing case stems from a subpoena that prosecutors sent to Twitter, asking for three months of messages from one man arrested on the bridge, Malcolm Harris. Prosecutors argued that the Twitter posts could show that he knew going onto the roadway was a violation.
Mr. Harris opposed the subpoena, saying that it violated his privacy and infringed on his First and Fourth Amendment rights. A judge later ruled against Mr. Harris because he had agreed to let Twitter publicly distribute his messages.
Mr. Harris pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct before the messages were handed over, and then appealed the order to produce them in State Supreme Court. His lawyer, Martin R. Stolar, said the issue had far-reaching implications for social media users whose communications are stored not in a desk drawer or file cabinet but in an electronic cloud maintained by others.
“So many people are using the cloud,” he said. “All this data is up there and who owns it?”