Protestors’ Wrongful Arrest Claims Against Paterson Police Headed to Trial

Talk of the Town Case Update

PASSAIC COUNTY, NJ—The Superior Court of New Jersey, Passaic County has denied motions for summary judgment filed by the City of Paterson and members of its police department in a lawsuit by activists Zellie Thomas and Walter “Hawk” Newsome. In their Complaint, Thomas and Newsome assert claims for wrongful arrest and violation of their freedom of speech. Thomas and Newsome are represented by the Lowenstein Center for the Public Interest and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

The Paterson Police arrested Thomas and Newsome on the evening of January 11, 2019, during a peaceful protest. Thomas and Newsome participated in a rally that evening, giving speeches and demanding police accountability. Although there were dozens of other participants, a police motorcycle unit arrested only Thomas and Newsome, known activists and leaders of local chapters of Black Lives Matter, charging them with obstructing highways and interfering with transportation. At a subsequent hearing, a municipal court acquitted Thomas and Newsome of all charges.

Thomas and Newsome then sued the Paterson Police for wrongful arrest and violation of their right to free speech and association. On August 15, 2023, the Hon. Bruno Mongiardo, J.S.C. held that Thomas and Newsome had presented enough evidence for the case to go to trial to determine whether the police had probable cause to arrest Thomas and Newsome, had intentionally singled Thomas and Newsome out for arrest, or had otherwise acted in disregard of established law and police protocols.

Ultimately, the Court held that the arresting officers and the acting Chief of Police could not establish their entitlement to a defense of qualified immunity, which is a doctrine that protects law enforcement officers from personal liability unless the law they violated was “clearly established” at the time of the violation.

The members of Lowenstein’s team include Craig Dashiell, Alexander Shalom, Jennifer Fiorica Delgado, Karim G. Kaspar, and Lauren Van Driesen.

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