Free Country Datum V: ‘The System Worked’

George Paine at Warblogging.com says that the fact that protestors got sprung realllly sloooowly, but faster than the cops wanted, is a sign the system worked. In one sense, of course, he's right: in a very unfree country protestors vanish, or get four years of hard labor.

Warblogging.com: Judge to City: You're in ContemptThe New York Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild filed writs of habeas corpus with the State Supreme Court earlier this week. A judge responded immediately by issuing a writ ordering the release of detainees held for more than 24 hours. The city appealed and was granted a stay. But yesterday the case came before Judge Cataldo, who again ordered immediate release.

At noon, arguing before Judge Cataldo, the city corporation counsel said “We couldn't get everyone processed as quickly as we liked… We're doing our best.” Judge Cataldo immediately replied “I'm ordering that.”

Later in the hearing the judge told the corporation counsel that “These people have already been the victims of a process. I can no longer accept your statement that you are trying to comply.”

By 6pm the NYPD had released few demonstrators. It was at this point that Judge Cataldo grew frusterated. He ordered a $1,000 fine for every protester still behind bars.

An hour later there had still been no movement by the NYPD. “We're coming back again until this is settled,” the judge said. “Once again, the order is, release these people.”

Norman Siegel of the New York Civil Liberties Union complained to the judge that it was only protesters who were being disadvanted by the city. He noted that actual criminals were being arraigned within the 24 hour window the law provides. “The only people being disadvantaged here are the protesters. We're arraigning robbers who have only been in 10 hours.”

Finally, hours later, the city began releasing detainees. They were met by hundreds of well-wishers, including friends and family, who cheered their release.

The reason that so many protesters were held so long without charges is obvious. Charges against most protesters would simply not stick. They were caught up in police nets — literally — and the victims of arbitrary arrest. They were charged with minor transgressions such as “blocking the sidewalk”.

The system, with lots of support from civil libertarian lawyers and the judiciary, has worked. The protesters have been released — and many were released in time for George Bush's speech at the RNC. Unfortunately the taxpayers will literally pay the bill for the NYPD's illegal detention of these protesters. First we will pay Judge Cataldo's fine. Next we will pay to settle the lawsuits of those detained.

If the protestors win anything above token damages, then I'd score this a victory.

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