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NEW LAWSUIT: Police Should Stop Arresting Innocent People Just for Being on a Business’s Property

Jason D. Williamson,
Deputy Director,
ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project
Miriam Aukerman,
Staff Attorney,
ACLU of Michigan
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May 1, 2013

The next time you're in Grand Rapids, Michigan and need to pull into a gas station to make a phone call, check your email, or take a look at your road map, you had better think twice. For years, the Grand Rapids Police Department has taken it upon themselves to determine who does and does not belong on the property of commercial businesses across the city – in many cases questioning, searching, and arresting innocent people for criminal trespass without warning and without the business owner's knowledge. Sound like a clear violation of the Bill of Rights? It is.

Today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the ACLU's Criminal Law Reform Project filed a federal lawsuit to challenge this longstanding practice.

First, a play-by-play of just how the Grand Rapids police have been riding roughshod over the Bill of Rights:

  • Step One: The Grand Rapids police solicit business owners to sign a form letter stating their intent to prosecute all trespassers. More than 800 businesses have signed such letters just in the past several years.
  • Step Two: Since these letters do not articulate a business owner's desire to keep a specific person off their property and are not directed at any particular person, Grand Rapids police officers take it upon themselves to determine who does and does not "belong" on the premises of a business that has signed a letter.
  • Step Three: In many cases, police arrest patrons of the business without even giving them a warning that they must leave. Arresting innocent people, including business patrons, for criminal trespassing is not only unconstitutional and degrading to those subject to arrest, it's also damaging to the very businesses police purport to help.

And second, a quick glimpse into the damage that this practice is doing to real people's lives. The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of two men, Gilbert Weber and Tyrone Hightower, who were arrested and jailed for trespassing in Grand Rapids although they were doing nothing wrong at the time.

  • Gilbert Weber: In June 2012, Weber, 46, stopped his car at a local BP gas station so he could stretch and relieve his chronic hip pain. Police approached Weber and questioned him about his presence at the gas station. Police then conducted a search of his car and administered a breathalyzer test, which he passed. Having failed to find any other basis to arrest Weber, the police arrested him for trespassing and he was jailed for three days until a friend bailed him out. At his hearing, it was revealed that at no time had the gas station clerk asked Weber to leave nor had the clerk complained to police. Instead, police arrested Weber based solely on the general Letter of Intent signed by the business owner. The charges against Weber were dismissed by a judge.
  • Tyrone Hightower: Hightower, 33, was arrested for trespassing in September 2011 when he and two friends pulled into the parking lot of Cheero's Sports Bar. It was raining at the time, so Hightower and a friend waited in the car while another friend held a spot for them in the long line to get in. As the men waited for their turn, police approached the car and arrested the pair. A police video of the encounter shows police citing the general Letter of Intent signed by the owner of Cheero's as the basis for the arrest. Hightower was jailed for several hours and later the charges were dropped by the prosecutor.

The ACLU lawsuit asks the court to order an immediate halt to this unconstitutional practice and declare that the City of Grand Rapids and Grand Rapids Police Department, through the use of general Letters of Intent, have violated Weber and Hightower's Fourth Amendment right to be free from unlawful arrests.

Check our case page for more information and updates as the case progresses.

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