Saint Paul, MN - Three activists and their attorneys won a $50,000 settlement today in a lawsuit that challenged an August 30, 2008 police raid on a Saint Paul home in advance of that year's Republican National Convention (RNC). The plaintiffs in the case - Sarah Coffey, Erin Stalnaker and Kris Hermes - are giving most of the award to the Committee to Stop FBI Repression, the Institute for Anarchist Studies and the formation of a national legal defense fund for political activists.
The Saint Paul house raid was one of several police actions taken against protesters days before the RNC began, including the search and seizure of a central political meeting space, which is also the subject of pending litigation.
"The City of Saint Paul and the federal government were forced to pay for their politically-motivated attack on organizers," said Sarah Coffey, one of the plaintiffs. "Rather than spend years in court fighting the government over its political surveillance program, we decided to use settlement money to invest in projects that oppose such repressive tactics."
The lawsuit, which was filed in August 2009 and accused the Saint Paul Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of violating plaintiffs' First, Fourth and Fourteenth amendment rights, is so far the largest settlement of its kind stemming from the convention protests. "We hope this sends a message to law enforcement officials who would enter homes illegally or suppress political dissent," said Coffey, "there is a cost to their actions."
The raid garnered significant media attention at the time due to an hours-long standoff between 10 activists and residents and a heavily armed police force that had surrounded the duplex. Because the police attempted to raid the home without a search warrant, those inside refused them entry. After allegedly getting verbal authority from a local judge, the police used force to enter 949 Iglehart Avenue and detained everyone inside. The owner, several tenants and activists, including members of the I-Witness Video collective were detained for hours. No illegal items were found, no one was arrested and nothing was visibly seized, although computers and camera equipment were searched.
The search warrant affidavit, which was under seal until a month after the raid in a likely attempt to avoid media scrutiny, relied solely on a confidential informant who made the claim that weapons were being shipped to 951 Iglehart using the U.S. Postal Service. In a sensationalist move, the police also tried to tie property owner Michael Whalen to a defunct 1970s political group, the Symbionese Liberation Army, in order to bolster the warrant's outrageous claim of arms shipments. However, once inside 951 Iglehart, police discovered that the boxes contained only vegan literature. Unsatisfied, police broke through a locked attic door to enter the neighboring but separate 949 Iglehart, which plaintiffs claimed was the operation's true objective.
Saint Paul Police Officer David Langfellow was in charge of the operation as a cross-deputized FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) agent. Langfellow testified during a deposition that although the FBI had been surveilling the duplex for more than a week before the convention, the investigation was not targeting Whalen, the main subject of the search warrant affidavit. Langfellow either was not told or refused to reveal details about the underlying investigation, which plaintiffs speculate had nothing to do with the shipment of boxes.
Plaintiffs' attorneys also contributed a portion of the award to the Impact Fund, which provides money to small law firms and nonprofits for lawsuits involving issues of civil rights, environmental justice, and poverty.
Tom Burke of the Committee to Stop FBI Repression states, “We are grateful for the contribution to our effort to defend the anti-war and international solidarity activists who were raided by the FBI or received subpoenas to the grand jury. Last week we saw an escalation of the attacks with the LA raid on the home of immigrants’ rights leader Carlos Montes. We need all the resources we can muster.”