One week after the Colorado ACLU launched an investigation into the constitutionality of police action at Occupy Denver, the group has yet to receive the records it requested from the Denver Police Department and the Colorado State Patrol. In the meantime, the ACLU is researching a secondary concern: The October 29 demonstration ended with the belongings of many protesters being thrown directly into city trash vehicles, an action that might violate the occupiers' rights as property owners.
When the police interaction of two Saturdays ago ended, a large mess of belongings were strewn across the area, although the tents were quickly confiscated. The tents prompted the presence by police, responding to a violation of Civic Center Park's no-camping policy. After eleven tents were removed and 21 arrests were made, one officer gave remaining group members a chance to enter a cordoned-off area to reclaim their belongings one by one.
At the same time, however, some of the debris, personal belongings included, was placed inside city waste vehicles and taken away.
"We heard reports from legal observers, and now I've also seen videos of tents and other property being thrown into city garbage trucks on Saturday the 29th," Colorado ACLU legal director Mark Silverstein says. "The legal issue is that people have the right to the property they own, and police do not have the right to seize it and arbitrarily destroy it."
To look more deeply into this issue, as well as the group's central focus on constitutional rights, the ACLU has requested after-action reports from police and state patrol specifically dealing with property seized by officers. While much of the group's property was originally collected during its eviction from Lincoln Park three weeks ago, it was (and is still being) returned to occupiers who can claim it using their photo IDs. Technically speaking, those belongings are categorized as "found and abandoned property."
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A handful of the tents established before the most recent police raid were collected from the state patrol only two days before the incident. "I don't know at this point how much property was disposed of," Silverstein says. "There's not a specific plan right now, but we want to make clear to city officials and to the police that they should lighten up on the degree of force that is applied to confronting demonstrators, that they should not be firing pepper ball rounds into the crowd, and that if police wind up taking custody of property from protesters, they should label it, store it and provide an opportunity for people to reclaim it. We want to send a message to the police that that kind of conduct violates the constitutional right of property owners."
In the meantime, Silverstein stresses that the ACLU's more grave concern involves the use of force during demonstrations. He has received confirmation that the DPD is currently collecting the records the ACLU requested, and an official from the state patrol has mailed a letter to the ACLU. Both responses exceed the three-day limit dictated by the request, but a large portion of the ACLU's future investigations hinge on access to those records.
"The greatest concern is definitely with the police shooting OC spray directly into the crowd and firing pepper balls into a peaceful protest, but we are focused on protecting all of the rights of the protesters," Silverstein says.
More from our Occupy Denver archive: "Occupy Denver elects a new leader: Shelby, a Border Collie mix."