Four Years Later: Justice for Unconstitutional Raid Victims
(C. Proxmire, Dec. 8 , 2012)
It was Funk Night at the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit, May 31, 2008. Local music boomed as Darlene Hellenberg and her friends danced among the artworks, living the culture of Detroit. For them it was a celebration of a good friend’s birthday, and to make the night even better the DJ was also a friend. The monthly Funk Night parties attracted a good crowd, and there were plenty of people to dance the night away with.
Until someone ran through the room, shouting that something was happening. And before she had time to think, Hellenberg found herself at the end of a gun. Men in all black with a bandanas across their faces ordered everyone to the ground. All around her people dropped, lying on the gallery floor while the people with guns screamed at them. Those who did not comply, or dared to ask questions, were kicked to the ground.
She had no idea what was going on, until uniformed police officers came in and began separating them – males in one room, females in another. Court documents say they were searched, and their purses and other property taken away. “I didn’t know what to expect so I didn’t have any emotional reaction. I just did what they said,” Hellenberg said.
The police took Hellenberg’s car keys and demanded to know where she had parked her vehicle. For over a couple of hours she and her friends sat in the room with the other women, not knowing what was going on. Finally they told her of her crime – loitering.
She was issued a ticket and told that her car was being confiscated. This happened to 40 people at the party. She tried to question why she was being accused of loitering at the well-known event, “but they didn’t want to hear it. There was no explaining anything.”
It was four or five in the morning, and Hellenberg’s friend called multiple people to secure rides home for people in their group of friends. “Almost everyone we knew was at the gallery. We finally found someone with a car to come get us, and we had to make a couple of trips to get everyone. It was such a crazy night.”
Soon after the event, the ACLU of Michigan (American Civil Liberties Union) got involved and police dropped the loitering charges against 130 people, yet they held the patrons’ cars in impound, telling them it would be $900 to get them back, plus towing and storage. The raid and the impounding of vehicles was tied to a law against those found loitering in the area of illegal activity, yet no drugs, weapons or illegal activity was found during the raid. Even after charges were dropped, the City felt they could charge for the release of the vehicles, essentially holding innocent people’s cars for ranson.
Hellenberg, who had just started working at the Ferndale Library, did not have the money to get her car out of impound. Like many involved in the incident, her car sat in impound for over 10 months. She walked and shared rides with friends for almost a year while her car was in police custody.
According to an ACLU press release, the organization then had to file a lawsuit against the City of Detroit to order the release of the vehicles and to fight the attached fines and fees. They represented nine patrons and four of their parents whose cars were confiscated during the raid. Hellenberg was among the plaintiffs.
The patrons were represented by ACLU Staff Attorney Dan Korobkin, ACLU Cooperating Attorneys William H. Goodman, Julie H. Hurwitz and Kathryn Bruner James, ACLU of Michigan Legal Director Michael J. Steinberg and ACLU of Michigan Staff Attorney Sarah Mehta. James is another Ferndale resident who is also the President of Citizens for Fair Ferndale.
In a 32-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Victoria A. Roberts ruled that the police violated the Fourth Amendment when they arrested everyone at the art gallery merely for being present and seized their cars without evidence that they had broken a law.
In addition, Judge Roberts found that the police misconduct at the CAID was not an isolated incident, but was in fact part of “a widespread practice” and “custom” by the Detroit Police Department of unconstitutionally “detaining, searching, and prosecuting large groups of persons” and impounding their cars based on their mere presence at a raid location.
According to the opinion: “…Mere presence, in and of itself, is never sufficient to establish probable cause that a person knowingly and intentionally was in a place of illegal occupation… even assuming that police had probable cause to believe that some people present had committed an arrestable offense, they nonetheless lacked probable cause for detaining everyone who happened to be at the CAID.
“In a free country, the police may not conduct commando-style raids on innocent people and seize their property without justification,” said Dan Korobkin, ACLU of Michigan staff attorney. “We hope this case will put a stop to the Motor City shakedowns we’ve seen across the city – the practice of arresting innocent people, seizing their cars, and refusing to return them unless they pay a $900 ransom.”
In the four years since the incident, Hellenberg and her friends have stopped going out as much. “We went out a ton before this happened, but after that we reeled it back in. We didn’t go to any more gallery parties, and didn’t go to Detroit as much. I don’t have anything against Detroit, but we definitely only stick to places we know really well. But we are older now too, so it isn’t just because of that.”
Hellenberg is grateful for the work the ACLU did on behalf of the victims of the unconstitutional raid. “I think it’s really awesome to have a group of people around you who can help you. Hopefully this won’t happen to anyone else. We did, as a group, feel like our rights were violated. Having the ACLU step in and defend my rights is probably one of the coolest things that has happened to me.”
Read more at http://www.aclumich.org/issues/caid-raid/2012-12/1783.