30 years ago, the ACLU sued and won a consent decree to prevent exactly what happened to a public defender in January
By Tim Redmond
FEBRUARY 4, 2015 — There’s an interesting twist in the case of the San Francisco public defender who was arrested for trying to prevent the police from unlawfully questioning her client.
This kind of behavior – and efforts to limit it – goes back 30 years, to the days when a young ACLU lawyer named John Crew was arrested by a police officer named Gary Delagnes in a case that led to a lawsuit and a consent decree by SFPD — to stop doing exactly what it appears the officers did at the Hall of Justice Jan. 27.
Crew, who had a long distinguished career at the ACLU, is now retired. But he remembers the incident clearly – and says that the arrest of Jami Tillotson has much broader implications.
“If they do this to a public defender doing her job in the corridors of the Hall of Justice,” he told me, “what does that say about what they’re surely doing on the street?”
Delagnes went on to become the head of the Police Officers Association. But in 1984, he was a cop who by some accounts was hassling homeless people in Hallidie Plaza.
Here’s Crew’s recollection:
The year before, the US Supreme Court had struck down California’s loitering law — PC 647(e) — which allowed police to demand ID of folks wandering or loitering in public places. Kolender v. Lawson was that case. (Ed Lawson, you’ll not be surprised to learn, was a dreadlocked African American man arrested or detained something like 15 times under this law in 18 months by San Diego police when he refused to identify himself while walking in La Jolla which, as I recall, was his own neighborhood… where, esp. back then, his appearance made him stand out.)
So in 1984, there were stories one day with photos in, as I recall, both the Chronicle and Examiner, showing two SFPD officers (Delagnes and his partner) approaching homeless people — “undesirables” they were called then — in Hallidie Plaza, demanding IDs, and conducting random warrant checks in a brazen (intentionally publicized) effort to roust them from the area. I had to be in that area anyway for an appointment the following day, and my ACLU boss and I agreed I should stop by Hallidie Plaza on the way back to see if they were still doing this. I did and they were.
I watched them from a distance (discretely I thought), taking notes as they approached a number of folks for no reason other than their appearance, demanded IDs, ran warrant checks, etc. They left Hallidie Plaza and started to walk north up Powell through a crowd, so I followed them still at some distance, but they had obviously noticed me and quickly turned around and confronted me about what I was doing.
Gary asked if I was another reporter. I said no. He demanded to know who I was and I politely declined. He demanded to see my identification and I politely said the law that had authorized them to demand ID of innocent pedestrians had been struck down the year before and I declined to provide it. Which quickly led to them pushing me up against a wall and placing me in handcuffs.
They ran my ID and found no warrants but, over my objection, they also rifled through a file I had with me that contained various papers on ACLU letterhead. They called for a wagon to pick us up — me in the back with another arrestee and them riding on a step on the back — and take us back to Southern Station. (One funny detail — from inside I heard through the air vent Gary’s partner say to him, “I can’t believe you didn’t know what the ACLU was!”)
As I waited in handcuffs at Southern, I saw Gary approach a sergeant who I saw shaking his head at whatever Gary was telling him and waving his hands in front of his face to shoo Gary away as though he didn’t want to hear what Gary was telling him. Gary, apparently discovering what I’d told him on the street to be true — that he couldn’t arrest me for loitering and not producing ID — then charged me with 148 — obstructing an officer. They took me upstairs but I was released prior to booking with Gary’s last words to me being “so, are you going to sue me?”
Crew did, of course – sue, that is – and the SFPD settled with an agreement that the police would not arrest people who were merely asserting their rights.
“Bottom line,” Crew told me, “you can only be arrested for violating PC 148 if you
willfully delay, obstruct, interfere or resist an officer in the exercise of his/her lawful duties.”
“Does SFPD even concede the legal reality that people — lawyers or not — have the right to peacefully object to cops violating the law and their own policies? That
lawyer was so calm, polite and non-threatening on the tape that you’d think her conduct would be the perfect example for how people SHOULD exercise their rights and stand up for others without creating undue threats or dangerous situations for cops.
“If SFPD doesn’t like what she did, perhaps they should tell all of us a better way to respectfully refuse to submit to obviously illegal claims of authority by their
officers. To me, it’s not about what they did to a lawyer trying to represent her client. It’s about what that means for non-lawyers trying to exercise their rights on the street.”
Thirty years have passed. I met John Crew around the same time he was fighting that case; we’re both a lot older now. The SFPD is a different force than it was in 1984 – more diverse, with civilian oversight. But then this stuff happens, and you wonder: How far have we really come?
BTW: Matier and Ross presented the police version of events, which, shall we say, stretches the imagination:
According to well-placed sources, police Sgt. Brian Stansbury was in a courtroom when he heard that two suspects in a recent burglary were just down the hall — and they were wearing the same clothes that they supposedly had on during the heist.
So Stansbury grabbed a couple of cops and stopped the pair to take their pictures in hopes the burglary victims could identify them.
Seriously? Two suspects were in court in a different case, and were wearing “the same clothes” they had on during a heist? What would that be –jeans and a track-suit jacket?
This will come before the Police Commission as soon as tonight (during public comment, possibly; it’s not on the agenda) and I hope the panel asks Chief Suhr the question that Crew raised: If what Tillotson did was wrong, how is any civilian ever supposed to question police behavior?