The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of a man who was wrongfully arrested days after Katrina and unlawfully detained for seven months. On September 11, 2005, James Terry, an Army veteran with no criminal record whatsoever, was at his residence on Magazine Street. Members of the Iowa National Guard spotted him on the porch, climbed the surrounding fence and broke in without a warrant or probable cause of criminal activity. The New Orleans Police Department was called in and arrested Terry without justification.
"The Constitution, the foundation of our freedom, still applies in a state of emergency, and public officials have a sworn duty to uphold it before, during and after a hurricane," said Joe Cook, Executive Director, ACLU of Louisiana. "The National Guard and the police did not have license to make a mockery of the rule of law, which seemed all too common in the days after Katrina."
NOPD officers took Mr. Terry to the "Camp Greyhound" bus station in downtown New Orleans that was converted to a temporary jail. He was made to sleep on oil soaked concrete for two days with only his shoes as a pillow. Upon transfer to Hunt Correctional Center, he was housed in a maximum-security cellblock and later in a carpentry shop on mat on a concrete floor. Terry remained incarcerated for almost seven months, until April 4, 2006, when he was released for unknown reasons.
James Terry believes that he was wrongfully arrested for looting, possession of a controlled dangerous substance, and possession of a firearm. There is no explanation for the looting allegation, as he lived in the residence where he was arrested. It is believed that the possession allegation was because the National Guard found a marijuana cigarette in the house in which he was living. The firearm allegation was because officers found a BB gun also in the residence. It should be noted that it is perfectly lawful to possess a weapon in the State of Louisiana.
Because Mr. Terry lacked knowledge of the judicial system, he may have been unable to secure his own release. Although, he was not given access to legal materials, as required by law, to try to help himself. He traded items from the prison store with other inmates for sample motions and pleadings, trying to get released. It is not believed that he ever had a hearing. He was never appointed a lawyer. It is not believed that he was ever charged with a crime, and yet he was incarcerated for almost seven months.
"The facts in this case illustrate a violation of most of the protections in the Bill of Rights," according to Katie Schwartzmann, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Louisiana. "He was denied his constitutional protection against unlawful search and seizure, his rights to due process, to counsel, to access the courts and his right to not be held in cruel and unusual conditions. Our system let him down, and he paid a very high price with seven months of his life."
ACLU Cooperating Attorney Al Shapiro of Baton Rouge and Katie Schwartzmann serve as counsel for Mr. Terry. See the complaint here.