A Superior Court judge said a jury should decide whether the protestors' allegations against the city have merit. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)
A Passaic County judge last week ruled against the city of Paterson’s push to dismiss a lawsuit brought by two Black Lives Matters activists who allege they were wrongfully arrested during a 2019 protest.
Attorneys for the city argued police officers were justified in arresting activists Zellie Thomas and Walter “Hawk” Newsome Jr. because the two men were obstructing traffic. But lawyers representing the two activists say they were exercising their constitutional right to free speech and that the arrests violated their civil rights.
Superior Court Judge Bruno Mongiardo on Aug. 15 largely sided with Thomas and Newsome, saying a jury should decide on their claims against the city. Mongiardo dismissed some of the claims filed against individual police officers.
“It is now in the hands of a Passaic County jury to review the evidence to determine what happened. We are confident that they will take that task seriously given the significant allegations in the case,” Alexander Shalom, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said in a statement.
A request for comment from Paterson was not returned.
The Paterson Police Department has been plagued with lawsuits and scandals in recent years, ranging from accusations of police brutality to a federal investigation of a group of city cops who were robbing and beating Paterson residents. The state Attorney General’s Office seized control of the department in March, weeks after anti-violence activist Najee Seabrooks was killed by police during what Seabrooks’ loved ones have called a mental health episode.
Thomas and Newsome were protesting the death of Jameek Lowery, a 27-year-old who died at a hospital while in police custody on Jan. 7, 2019, two days after he appeared at the Paterson Police Department, pleading that someone was trying to kill him. The protest, held four days after Lowery died, brought about 50 people out in front of City Hall.
The two men made comments critical of the city’s police department during the rally, according to their complaint. Soon after, they were arrested and Paterson police charged them with obstructing highways and other public passages and interference with transportation.
Thomas and Newsome allege in their lawsuit that police arrived on motorcycles and blocked their path, while the city contends the protestors were blocking street traffic.
On Dec. 18, 2020, a municipal judge found both men not guilty. They filed their lawsuit the following month. Both the ACLU and Lowenstein Sandler are involved in the activists’ lawsuit.
“This case is about making sure that Paterson gives everyone a fair opportunity to protest. I think it speaks volumes that the judge heard the arguments and had questions about whether we were allowed to exercise our rights,” Thomas said in a statement.
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