September 28, 2004

Washington, DC Judge Certifies Class Action Lawsuit Charging Seven Years of False Arrests and Prosecutions on Underage Alcohol Charges

3 min

WASHINGTON, DC (September 28, 2004) – One of the largest class action lawsuits ever filed for police and prosecutorial misconduct has been certified by a Washington, DC Superior Court judge.

The suit seeks to force DC police to expunge arrest records of more than 3,500 young people who were charged with underage possession or consumption of alcohol between spring 1997 and this past summer. Under District law, underage possession or consumption of alcohol is a civil, not criminal, offense.

"In the post-9/11 era, it complicates a young person’s life to have an arrest record, even for something that is usually seen as a minor offense," said Carol Elder Bruce, a Venable litigation partner who represents the class. "Moreover, being arrested, handcuffed in public, fingerprinted, and held in jail, and having your mug shot taken, is a miserable experience, and it is clearly not one that these individuals should ever have had to go through."

The suit alleges an ongoing pattern of police and prosecutorial misconduct including false arrests and prosecutions, negligence and infliction of emotional distress. It names police and police officials, prosecutors and the mayor, in their official capacities – and as individuals, which carries a potential for individual liability.

Many of those arrested were held in jail for extended periods and had to miss classes to attend court. Almost all ultimately had to perform community service. In addition, the police reported the arrests to school disciplinary boards and to parents. Many of the arrestees and their parents had to pay for attorney representation in court and in efforts to get records sealed.

Judge Zoe Bush certified the class under what is known as the civil rights sub-section of the local class action rules, which track the federal rules. Under that rule, the class is mandatory, automatically pulling in everyone around the country who had been arrested on similar charges in Washington, DC since April 9, 1997. Nearly all of the class members attended DC-area colleges including Georgetown and George Washington University, but most are now dispersed around the country.

In May, Judge Bush issued a preliminary injunction against the District. The DC City Council later passed emergency legislation to permanently stop the arrests and prosecutions.

The case is styled John Doe II, et. al. v. District of Columbia, et. al.

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