Racine, WI, police must have thought they scored a major coup when they raided what they described as a "rave" organized by a local civic organization early in the morning of November 3. But a month after the raid went down, it is turning into a major embarrassment instead -- one that could end up digging deep into the pockets of Racine taxpayers.
It all began when Racine police infiltrated a benefit for the Uptown Theatre Group. Officers allegedly observed people making drug transactions and arrested three of them. It was their next move that sparked outrage and controversy. They then barred the doors and cited everyone in attendance -- some 445 people, some from as far away as St. Louis and Chicago -- for being present in a "disorderly house," a $968 ticket. That was too much for the Uptown Theatre Group and for most of the ticketed attendees. As they complained loudly and vigorously, the word began to spread in the electronic music community and among civil liberties groups.
By this week, groups including the Wisconsin ACLU, the national ACLU's Drug Policy Litigation Project and the Electronic Music Defense and Education Fund (http://www.emdef.org), an affiliate of the Drug Policy Alliance, had joined forces with local attorneys and angry show-goers to start making life miserable for the city of Racine.
"We've received more than 250 complaints," said Susan Mainzer, spokeswoman for EMDEF, an organization formed to defend the electronic music scene from attacks by misguided prohibitionists. "And with reason. This was really over the line." Mainzer forwarded those complaints to the state and national ACLU, she told DRCNet.
After receiving numerous complaints, the Wisconsin ACLU investigated. "The city of Racine needs to drop those charges and apologize," said the group's lead attorney, Micabil Diaz. He said the same thing in a letter sent last week to Wright. He hasn't yet received a response, he told DRCNet.
Wright, hoping to make the hubbub go away, last week offered to reduce the fines to $100, but that wasn't good enough for the busted music fans. On Monday, as the first batch of ticketed partiers appeared for their first hearings on the charges, legal teams outside the courthouse provided them with information about their legal options and the possible consequences of their choices. At the end of the day Monday, 166 people had appeared for their hearings. Only 19 took the $100 "no contest" plea offer, while a whopping 147 people pled not guilty and demanded jury trials. Almost 300 people have yet to make an appearance, but advocates expect to see a similar percentage demanding their day in court.
"We told them about their options, but the decision to demand a trial was up to them," Diaz told DRCNet. "They refuse to take a plea," he told DRCNet. "This is a matter of principle for them."
As it should be, said local attorney Eric Guenther, who is representing the Uptown Theatre and several of those ticketed that night. "The police conduct was an outrageous violation of First Amendment rights to freedom of assembly and speech," he told DRCNet. "The police are supposed to arrest drug violators, but these people didn't do anything more than attend an electronic music concert. The police claimed there was rampant drug activity, but then why did they only arrest three people on drug charges?"
Mary Hahn of the national ACLU's Drug Policy Litigation Project concurred. "That was a really egregious First Amendment violation with frightening ramifications," she told DRCNet. "Are they going to ticket everybody at a jazz club if someone is using drugs?" she asked. "Those people were not committing crimes, they were doing nothing wrong."
Racine will pay a price if it attempts to prosecute these cases, said Guenther. "The city is saying it will have to hire a special prosecutor to handle the caseload, and it will have to pay huge overtime costs for police officers to testify in hundreds of trials," he said.
And that's not the only possible price. Although Guenther, who represents the Uptown Theatre, refused to comment on the possibility, press reports this week quoted theatre director Gary Newman as hinting that the group could file a civil suit against the city. He told the Racine Journal Press that the raid and arrests damaged the group's reputation and ability to raise funds for the theatre's renovation, a two-year-old project. "We have been harmed by this," Thompson said. "They (police) decided they did not want this party to happen... the police blunder may end up costing the taxpayers."
A civil suit would typically first seek injunctive relief, said Hahn, but plaintiffs could also seek damages.
And the Racine police still don't get it. "When we see probable cause to make an arrest, we do it," said police spokesman Sgt. Macemon. "The courts may disagree, but I don't think we would do anything different."
Racine taxpayers might have something to say about that when the bills start coming in.