In a brazen display of Constitutional ignorance, Atlanta police officers stormed into a gay bar last year without a search warrant and forced about 80 people down at gunpoint, confiscating their cell phones to prevent photographs as they frisked everybody in the bar.

Police claimed they were attempting to crack down on public sex acts and indecent exposure inside the Atlanta Eagle bar, but after more than two hours of frisking, interrogating and entering names into a police database, they left without making a single arrest.

While their actions were clear violations of the First and Fourth Amendments, Atlanta police insisted they were only following departmental policy.

And they were right. Since 2005, the police department had a policy in place that allowed them to detain people whom they deemed “suspicious” without any actual probable cause or search warrant.

However, the Atlanta Police Department will now be forced to rewrite its policy after a settlement this week stemming from the September 2009 raid.

Dan Grossman, attorney for the plaintiffs and longtime Photography is Not a Crime reader, spearheaded the settlement in which the city will dish out $1 million to 28 plaintiffs as well as certain procedure reforms.

Grossman, who is also a photographer, was sure to include a provision that forbids police from preventing citizens from photographing them in public.

  • Requires the revocation or amendment of several unconstitutional Atlanta Police Department policies regarding search, seizure, and arrest;
  • Requires Atlanta police officers to wear clearly visible nametags and to identify themselves upon request;
  • Prohibits Atlanta police officers from interfering with the public’s right to take photographs and make video and audio recordings of police activity;
  • Requires Atlanta police officers to document certain warrantless ID checks, detentions, frisks, and searches;
  • Requires the City of Atlanta to conduct mandatory in-person training of all police officers every two years regarding Fourth Amendment law and the safe use of firearms;
  • Requires the Atlanta Police Department to rule on citizen complaints of police misconduct within 180 days (many of these these investigations previously remained open for years);
  • Requires the Atlanta Police Department to conduct an investigation which should lead to discipline of officers for specific types of misconduct and for untruthfulness, including lies told under oath in various proceedings.

Grossman said the city council will consider adapting these reforms as law. And he believes other cities should enact similar laws.

“Photography and videography is one of the most powerful tools for police accountability,” he said in an interview with PINAC. “If cities actually care about police accountability, they would pass a law like this.”

Grossman did an excellent job on keeping the public informed of this case with a site he launched, where you can read more details.

The entire settlement can be read here.

He also sent me PDFs of the Standard Operarting Procedures (linked below) that were declared unconstitutional with the following explanation.

As you will see in the Search and Seizure SOP (SOP.3020), the section describing warrantless searches never mentioned the need for probable cause.  (See Paragraph  4.3.1(2)).

The “Terry stop” SOP (called “Field Interviews”) instructed police officers to detain, frisk, and run ID checks on “suspicious” persons.  This SOP was basically a handbook to unconstitutional seizures.  It never even mentions the words “Reasonable Articlulable Suspicion,” which is required for a lawful Terry stop.  And the SOP even contains its own “cover-up” provision:  If an officer finds that the civilian “has a legitimate reason for being at the location,” the officer is instructed to “de-escalate the situation by courteously explaining what prompted the stop” and “tactfully alter the encounter into a less formal citizen contact.”  (Section 4.3.4)  Needless to say, an illegal detention can never be “altered” after the fact into a consensual encounter.

Search and Seizure SOP.

Field Interviews SOP.

Arrest Procedures SOP.