Focus turns to federal lawsuit over Eagle raid

Undercover and uniformed officers stormed the bar, forcing patrons to the floor, where they remained for as long as an hour as police checked their identification and searched them for drugs. The department maintains the raid was based on a months-long undercover investigation into alleged sexual and drug activity at the Eagle, but no one was arrested on sex or drug charges.

All but one of the eight employees who were arrested were either found not guilty or had their charges dismissed March 11. With those cases now resolved, the focus turns to the federal civil lawsuit, which is gaining momentum with settlement talks and depositions this week.

“This case is very important to the LGBT community, in that dozens of gay men had their civil rights violated that night,” said Lambda Legal attorney Greg Nevins. “But it is important to the entire city of Atlanta, in that the police have maintained that they have the right to detain and search innocent people without a warrant or any suspicion of illegal activity.

“Those practices must stop for the good of the LGBT community and everyone else in Atlanta.”

Nevins is supervising attorney for the Southern regional office of Lambda Legal, which filed the lawsuit with attorney Dan Grossman and the Southern Center for Human Rights.

The city law department and the plaintiffs’ attorneys discussed settlement options as recently as last Friday, one day after the Municipal Court trial, Grossman said.
Neither acting Atlanta City Attorney Roger Bhandari nor Mayor Kasim Reed would comment on the pending litigation.

Not just about gay rights

Eagle patrons filed the federal lawsuit last November, along with co-plaintiffs Rawhide Leather, Inc., a leather shop in the Eagle’s basement, and Ramey & Kelley, Inc., the corporation doing business as the Atlanta Eagle. The suit names the City of Atlanta and several police officers, including former Chief Richard Pennington, as defendants. 
According to Grossman, the city scheduled plaintiff depositions beginning Monday, March 15, as the lawsuit entered a pre-trial discovery phase slated to last eight months.
Unlike typical gay rights court cases, this lawsuit does not seek to change any laws but rather to force Atlanta police to comply with existing constitutional guarantees and state laws that protect all citizens from police misconduct, Grossman said.

“The precedent is already there,” Gross man said, adding that he sought assistance not only from Lambda Legal but also from the Southern Center for Human Rights be
cause it is not just a “gay case.”

“We need to send a message that you don’t have to be gay to care about what happened. It was a plain old assault on the rights of anybody,” he said. “Everybody has a right to go out, have a beer, watch the game on TV and not get thrown on the floor and handcuffed.”

The decision to search everyone in the bar “demonstrates a problem we’ve seen frequently where police target an entire group of individuals, detain and search them all, when police only suspect that a few have engaged in anything criminal,” said Gerry Weber, senior staff counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights.

“This violates the basic principle that probable cause is based on an individual’s conduct, not their mere presence at the wrong place and time,” he said.

Grossman and his co-counsel will next file paperwork to amend the plaintiffs’ original complaint so it includes individual police officers whose names were not known when the lawsuit was filed. The amendment to the complaint will also request to add more plaintiffs who were present at the Eagle during the raid.

Grossman also plans to request discovery documents, such as disciplinary records and complaints against defendant officers, radio transmission tapes recorded during the raid, internal memos written before and after the raid, and officer activity sheets documenting the day of the raid.

The lawsuit seeks both punitive damages and compensation for actual damage to property, physical pain and injury, mental anguish and emotional distress. Additionally, the plaintiffs want the city to stop adhering to police procedures followed during the Eagle raid and to delete any information about the plaintiffs entered into police records or databases as a result of the raid, according to Grossman.

‘Settlement will need to include an apology’

The city has offered money to settle the case, but none of the plaintiffs or their attorneys originally became involved in the lawsuit because of a desire to be monetarily compensated, said Grossman, adding that no specific dollar amount has been involved in the negotiations.

“In this case, money is less important than putting in place a real concrete structure to protect citizens from this happening again,” Grossman said. “But the longer the city has dragged this out and defended something that is indefensible, the more we realize that financial damages may be the only way to get their attention.”

Ray Matheson
Ray Matheson photo by Chris Seely

Ray Matheson, one of the patron plaintiffs, echoed Grossman’s statement.

“My first priority is not getting a check,” Matheson said. “I have a job and I have a life. I’m more about the apology and about people being forced to admit that what they did was wrong than just pulling out their checkbooks.”

According to the plaintiff’s complaint filed Nov. 24, 2009, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Deputy Police Chief Carlos Banda stated last October at a public forum that the alleged police misconduct during the raid is actually the department’s standard policy and practice for the “Red Dog Unit” which raided the Eagle. “If the city wants to resolve this case in a productive and responsible way, the settlement will need to include an apology, an admission of wrongdoing, and a commitment to changing police policy,” said Grossman. “So far they have flatly refused.”

In early January, Atlanta City Council Member Michael Julian Bond introduced a resolution that would offer “an apology to the patrons and employees of the Atlanta Eagle Bar for the indignities which they experienced as a result of the September 10, 2009 police raid.”

But now the resolution is on hold in the council’s public safety committee because city attorneys advised council members not to apologize while the federal lawsuit against the city proceeds, said Alex Wan, the openly gay council member who represents the Eagle’s district.

Though he would be happy to settle now, Grossman does not foresee that as a possibility.

“One of the officers at the [Atlanta Municipal Court trial] testified that nobody was searched during the raid,” he said. “While they continue to lie, we are not going to have any settlement.”

Lawsuit allegations

Whether searches occurred is relevant to the civil lawsuit, which alleges that the City of Atlanta and several police officers violated the patrons’ federal and state constitutional rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures and to question the conduct of a police officer.

According to Grossman, the first thing the police did wrong was to detain, or “seize,” the Eagle patrons without the necessary “reasonable, particularized, and articulable suspicion” that the patrons were involved in any criminal activity.

“The cops didn’t know anything about the patrons. All they knew is that they were present at a gay bar,” Grossman said.

The police also unlawfully searched the patrons without warrants and without probable cause, said Grossman, who alleges that the officers went on a fishing expedition, putting their hands in the patrons’ pockets and removing keys, cash, wallets, cell phones, driver’s licenses, and anything else they found.

Plaintiff Geoff Calhoun said that after 10 to 15 minutes when the officers had not found any drugs or other criminal activity, the officers “came around, patted us down, pulled everything out of our pockets, removed my I.D. from my wallet and threw it on my back.”

Calhoun works for the Smyrna Police Department as a 911 operator and said he thought long and hard before deciding to become a plaintiff.

“Those officers t those are the people that I do my part to protect every day, to make sure they go home. If my co-workers see me suing a police department, what would they think about me?” said Calhoun, who ultimately joined the lawsuit with support from his department.

“I’m not out to ruin an officer’s life, but in my opinion the people that need to answer for it are the people who ordered the raid and the policy makers,” he said.

Calhoun and several other plaintiffs have also filed complaints with the Atlanta Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards and the Atlanta Citizen Review Board, which are conducting separate investigations into police misconduct during the raid.

Patrons who asked why they were being detained or for police officer names or badge numbers “were told to ‘shut the fuck up,’ some were threatened with being handcuffed, some were threatened with violence and physical harm, and some were retaliated against by being forced to remain at the Eagle long after they had been searched,” according to the complaint.

One plaintiff, David Shepherd, was allegedly arrested in his own home, according to the complaint. He was cleared of all charges last week at the Atlanta Municipal Court hearing.

Atlanta Eagle exterior
Atlanta Eagle photo by Shannon Jenkins

Shepherd works as an assistant manager at the Eagle and also rents an apartment upstairs from the bar. He was off duty on the night of the raid, watching television in his apartment when the cops banged on his door, searched his apartment and immediately arrested him inside his home without any warrants, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit seeks “nominal damages” for the alleged constitutional violations, but compensatory and punitive damages for alleged violations of state tort laws, including false imprisonment, assault, battery, trespass and damage to property.

The torts claims stem from allegations that property was damaged and some patrons were shoved, kicked, handcuffed, held down with boots on their backs, forced to lay flat on the floor with their faces near broken glass and spilled beer, and prevented by police from leaving the premises.

One such patron allegedly suffered cuts from the broken glass, and a police officer allegedly threatened to hit another patron “on the head with a barstool,” according to the complaint.

Plaintiff Matheson said he wasn’t thinking about constitutional rights during the raid.

“I was scared shitless, to say the least,” said Matheson. “In my mind nothing made sense. We didn’t know what was going on. We felt like we were being held hostage.”


Top photo: Shannon Jenkins