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SALT LAKE CITY — Fourteen people who say they were peacefully protesting in downtown Salt Lake City on May 30, 2020, following the death of George Floyd claim their civil rights were violated by the city.
The group, along with their attorney, Brian Jackson, are suing the city claiming an emergency curfew ordered by Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall violated their right to assemble. Furthermore, some plaintiffs in the lawsuit claim they were hit by rubber bullets fired by police and unlawfully arrested for exercising their First Amendment rights.
"The use of force to enforce an illegal curfew order is unreasonable in light of the circumstances and the First Amendment rights of these individuals," the lawsuit states, while also noting that actions by the city and police that night were "motivated by evil or reckless intent" and meant to "punish people for exercising their First Amendment rights."
A spokesman for Mendenhall's office, however, said the city is confident that its emergency curfew order was lawful.
"We believe the city's curfew and actions were proper and lawful given the nature of events on May 30 and June 1, 2020. We are confident that the mayor acted within her legal authority to issue the emergency curfew and the Salt Lake City Police Department acted appropriately during the civil unrest of May 30 and June 1."
The 27-page lawsuit was filed Friday in federal court. The 14 people listed as plaintiffs are from Salt Lake, Davis and Summit counties.
On May 30, 2020, what started off as a peaceful protest over police brutality sparked by the death of George Floyd, turned into a standoff between police and thousands of protesters in downtown Salt Lake City, several of whom caused vandalism and destruction around the city.
During the riot, a Salt Lake City police car was overturned and burned. The state Capitol had graffiti spray-painted on it and numerous buildings and TRAX platforms in downtown Salt Lake had their glass windows shattered.
Officers from 35 agencies statewide responded to the call for help from police that day. Police say they had "rocks, street signs, manhole covers, pepper spray, frozen water bottles, milk jugs, rags and bottles full of feces and urine, (and) explosives" thrown at them that day. Several officers had to be treated for injuries, including one officer who suffered a broken hand after being hit with a chunk of concrete.
The governor activated the National Guard and the mayor ordered a 72-hour emergency curfew.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed on Friday, however, say the curfew violated their rights of freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.
"Plaintiffs were exercising their rights under free speech and right to peacefully assemble under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution as it related to their stance on the death of George Floyd. The curfew order deprived plaintiffs of this right which effectively made it illegal for anyone to protest George Floyd in the city of Salt Lake," the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit also contends the curfew was unconstitutional because it included private property.
"Additionally, the basis and or motivating force for the curfew order was to quell all peaceful demonstrations," according to the lawsuit. "(The city's) intention was to arrest, detain, move and remove individuals that exercised their First Amendment rights and were peacefully assembled in the downtown area related to the George Floyd protests."
The lawsuit claims it was unlawful for the city to sign the curfew order just 20 minutes before enacting it, and that the city is only allowed to make such a declaration as a last resort.
"The city also cannot break up a gathering unless there is a clear and present danger of riot, disorder and immediate threat to public safety," according to the lawsuit which argues the plaintiffs were protesting peacefully hours after the police car was burned.
"Upon information or belief at the time the arrests were made, there was no scene of riot. None of the plaintiffs were rioting or had committed disorderly conduct. The only intent and purpose of the arrests of plaintiffs was to get peaceful protestors out of the Salt Lake City area acting under the curfew order."
The plaintiffs also argue that the city did not give them sufficient time to leave the area or an unobstructed path to do so.
Most of the plaintiffs were arrested in the area of 400 South State. Several stated they were hit by rubber bullets from police in the face, arms or legs. One woman said she was handcuffed and yanked to the ground, according to the lawsuit. Another claimed that seeing her picture on the news affected her work performance by causing her anxiety and she was fired from her job.
According to court records, nine of the plaintiffs were arrested for investigation of failing to disperse, but formal criminal charges were never filed in Salt Lake District or Salt Lake Justice Court. The police booking affidavits for those arrested typically stated that the person "refused to comply and obey an emergency acted curfew at 2000 hrs on May 30, 2020, and remained unlawfully in an active riot." There is no booking affidavit or charges for five of the plaintiffs.
The plaintiffs are seeking unspecified punitive damages and reimbursement of attorney fees.