Lawsuits mount against Phoenix, county for ‘outrageous’ criminal cases against protesters

By: - July 20, 2021 9:21 am
protest george floyd June 4

Protesters march down Central Avenue on June 4, 2020, as part of nationwide demonstrations against police violence sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Photo by Jeremy Duda | Arizona Mirror

A lawsuit claims the City of Phoenix, the Phoenix Police Department and leadership at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office conspired to falsely arrest and maliciously prosecute people who rallied last year to protest the deaths of George Floyd, Dion Johnson and other Black people. 

The plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit include 20 people who were arrested between July and October 2020 following demonstrations, and they claim their constitutional rights were violated and they were deprived of their civil rights. 

They allege Phoenix police and county prosecutors had “an ongoing First Amendment conspiracy to arrest anyone in the area of a protest critical of law enforcement and/or in support of Black Lives and charge them with crimes irrespective of the individual actions of individual arrestees.” They’re asking for monetary compensation and the court to issue punitive measures against the city and county. 

The lawsuit was filed against Maricopa County; Alister Adel, the county attorney who was appointed to office in 2019 and elected in November; county prosecutors April Sponsel and Nicholas Michaud; five members of the MCAO executive team; the City of Phoenix; the Phoenix Police Department; police Chief Jeri Williams; and 52 other members of the police force.

Would these people be standing here if they were out there protesting mask mandates? Would they be standing here if they were out protesting suspicions about a rigged election? It’s a question that the jurors in this case will be asked to answer.

– Stephen Benedetto

“Throughout the summer and fall of 2020, prosecutors at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office colluded with officers in the Phoenix Police Department to surveil, target, unlawfully arrest, and maliciously prosecute well-known racial justice activists in an effort to suppress the First Amendment rights of activists critical of law enforcement and to intimidate, disrupt, silence, and ultimately, incapacitate the local Movement for Black Lives,” the complaint alleges. 

Keisha Acton, one of the plaintiffs, works with Black Lives Matter Phoenix Metro, one of the groups that organized and coordinated several rallies in 2020. Phoenix police arrested Acton on Oct. 3 and the county prosecuted her for resisting arrest, a felony. Her case was eventually dismissed, the complaint states. 

“I was facing eight years in prison simply for the lies that Phoenix Police Department fabricated and created to make up this egregious story of who I was as a person, simply so they didn’t have to be held accountable for what was happening in their police department,” Acton said at a press conference last week. “The Phoenix Police Department needs to be held accountable.”

Keisha Acton
PHOTO: Keisha Acton, who works with Black Lives Matter Phoenix Metro, speaks at a press conference on July 13, 2021, in Phoenix. Acton and 19 other people filed a lawsuit against the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office and the Phoenix Police Department for false arrests and malicious prosecution of people who participated in BLM protests in 2020. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

Action said that police consistently met protesters with violence, no matter how peaceful the demonstrations were in calling for changes like defunding police departments, abolishing law enforcement agencies or limiting the protections for officers who shoot and kill people. 

The demonstrations in Phoenix and other cities in Arizona started a few days after Floyd’s death in Minnesota and the May 25 death of Dion Johnson, who was shot by a state trooper on a Phoenix freeway. The rallies, where sometimes hundreds marched on city streets, happened almost daily throughout the summer and into the fall. Police and prosecutors sought to chill that momentum through arrests and criminal cases, the lawsuit alleges. Activists sounded the alarm last year about the arrests and criminal prosecution, calling the efforts political persecutions. 

The lawsuit claims Sponsel, a county prosecutor, drafted a probable cause statement that police used in August to arrest some of the plaintiffs and charge them with felony rioting. It also alleges county prosecutors met with Phoenix police in late September to come up with a “strategy” and protocol to arrest and charge demonstrators. The cops and prosecutors used Signal, an encrypted messaging app which allows users to automatically delete conversations after some period of time, “to hide their conspiratorial conversations, and to avoid public disclosure laws,” the lawsuit claims. 

Gang cases and neo-Nazi trophy coin

Among the plaintiffs are six people who were arrested on Oct. 17 charged with a gang affiliation felony for belonging to a made-up gang that had the goal of harming police. A county judge in June dismissed those gang cases, and found police Sgt. Douglas McBride and Sponsel provided false, misleading and inflammatory testimony to a grand jury about the fictional gang. 

Attorney Billy Murphy Jr. called the behavior of police and prosecutors “outrageous” and unlike anything he’s seen in his career. 

Murphy Jr. is a prominent attorney in Baltimore who won a $6.4 million settlement for the family of Freddie Gray, who died in 2015 from injuries sustained while in police custody, according to The Baltimore Sun. His legal partner, Malcolm Ruff, is also involved in the Phoenix lawsuit. Pittsburgh attorney Mart Harris and Phoenix-based People’s Law Firm are also part of the legal team.

The Baltimore and Pittsburgh attorneys are also representing plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit filed in May by people who were targeted for mass felony arrests without probable cause.

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There are now at least three federal lawsuits against Phoenix-area police and prosecutors filed by people arrested during 2020 protests denouncing police killings. Another one includes a lawsuit against Sheriff Paul Penzone for allegedly holding activist Máxima Guerrero longer in jail to allow federal immigration agents to arrest her.

Stephen Benedetto, attorney with the People’s Law Firm, said police and prosecutors treated protesters in Phoenix differently that they did other Arizona residents who took part in different protests last year. 

“Would these people be standing here if they were out there protesting mask mandates?” Benedetto said last week at a press conference, with some of the plaintiffs standing behind him.  “Would they be standing here if they were out protesting suspicions about a rigged election? It’s a question that the jurors in this case will be asked to answer. We suspect there will be evidence in this case that will come out regarding those facts.”

A key part of the lawsuit is the lack of action city and Phoenix police leadership took when a cops were found to sell and share a “challenge coin” based on Neo-Nazi imagery that made fun of police shooting a protestor in the groin in 2017. Phoenix officer George Herr, which the lawsuit claims “is one of the original holders” of the challenge coin, is named in the lawsuit. Herr, like other cops within the Tactical Response Unit where the coin was created, went on to work at Black Lives Matter protests and arrest prominent Black activists. Herr, for example, arrested Lee Percy Christian, who spent days in jail over criminal charges.

Group calls on Adel to resign, or recall campaign will follow

The lawsuit also points to a history dating back to 2009 of using its power to prosecute innocent people, namely when then County Attorney Andrew Thomas prosecuted political critics of former Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Because of those prosecutions, Thomas was disbarred shortly after leaving office. The lawsuit goes over protests dating back to 2014 to demonstrate what it says is a history within Phoenix police “of violating the first amendment rights” of people who protest in support of the movement denouncing the deaths of Black people during police encounters. 

“Targeting, arresting, and prosecuting people who exercise their first amendment rights to speak out against white supremacy or in support of Black people, or that associate with people who do, is a longstanding practice or custom of Phoenix,” the complaint states. “Conspiring with law enforcement to prosecute innocent people whose speech was disfavored by law enforcement is a longstanding practice or custom of Maricopa.”

Matthew Aguilar from Mass Liberation Arizona, a group that advocates for criminal justice reform, called on Adel, the county attorney, to resign. He said if she doesn’t, groups will initiate a recall campaign. 

“No one from (MCAO) is sorry for trying to destroy the lives of hundreds of people who are demanding police stop killing Black people. Harm does not end in the resolution of a lawsuit. Just as police killed Black and brown people in the streets, prosecutors kill us in the courtroom,” Aguilar said. “The tactics that we have seen demonstrated by the highest level of authority at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office are disgusting and reprehensible.”

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Laura Gómez
Laura Gómez

Reporter Laura Gómez Rodriguez covers state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror. She was named Best Investigative Reporter by Phoenix Magazine in its 2018 newspaper category and has been honored by the Arizona Press Club for education, immigration, political, and public safety reporting and Spanish-language news and feature reporting. Laura worked for The Arizona Republic and La Voz Arizona for four years, covering city government, economic development, immigration, politics and trade. In 2017, Laura traveled the length of the U.S.-Mexico border for “The Wall,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning project produced by The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network. She is a native of Bogotá, Colombia and lived in Puerto Rico and Boston before moving to Phoenix in 2014. Catch her researching travel deals, feasting on mariscos or playing soccer.

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