LAS VEGAS — The arrests of several protesters for writing anti-police messages with chalk on a sidewalk last year have spawned a federal civil rights lawsuit against Las Vegas police.
Maggie McLetchie, attorney for the plaintiffs, said Friday that chalking isn't a crime, and the people who protested in July 2013 outside Las Vegas police headquarters and a regional courthouse had a constitutional right to express themselves.
"You don't need to ask anybody for permission to engage in free speech on a public sidewalk, including writing with water-soluble chalk," McLetchie said. "We certainly don't criminalize kids for drawing hopscotch on the sidewalk. We should all be concerned when the police department is investigating and using inapplicable laws to try to punish its very critics."
Officer Laura Meltzer, a police spokeswoman, said the department doesn't comment on lawsuits.
The arrests of plaintiffs Brian Ballentine, Catalino Dazo Jr. and Kelly Patterson on conspiracy and graffiti charges provided a pivot point for a debate last year about the use of police resources and power to punish department critics. A protest supporter, Gail Sacco, is also a plaintiff in the case.
The civil lawsuit filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas seeks unspecified monetary damages and a court declaration that protesting on public sidewalks is not against the law. The 31-page complaint accuses the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and several officers of false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, inadequate training and harassment.
It invokes constitutional rights of free speech and assembly, due process and protection from unreasonable search and seizure.
Ballentine, Dazo and Patterson are members of a group called the Sunset Activist Collective that uses chalk as a form of expression and art.
District Attorney Steve Wolfson dropped charges against them several weeks after their arrests, after learning that uniformed court marshals or police officers had directed protesters to a spot on the sidewalk where they wrote messages.
The protesters invited media coverage in advance and later posted Internet accounts and videos showing their work.
One message read: "Not one single cop in Metro's entire history has been charged after shooting someone. Even if that person was unarmed and/or innocent." Other messages were profane. One labeled the police department a criminal gang.
The protests stemmed from a 2011 tally by the Las Vegas Review-Journal that found 142 people had been killed in 378 police shootings in the Las Vegas area in a little more than 20 years. Civil rights leaders followed with calls for a civil rights investigation by the U.S. Justice Department.
An alternative federal Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) review led to a report calling for an "organizational transformation" and better training of Las Vegas officers.
Representatives of the federal law enforcement oversight group returned to the city this year to praise the department for reducing officer-involved shootings and adopting use-of-force reforms based on the COPS report.