A Hartford attorney has declared the arrest of Unidad Latina en Accion leader John Lugo, who was arrested on Nov. 20 while protesting wage theft, unconstitutional.
Mario Cerame, an attorney at Fazzano & Tomasiewicz in Hartford, penned a letter to Mayor Toni Harp on Dec. 2 decrying Lugo’s arrest as a First Amendment violation. Lugo and ULA members were protesting Goodfellas Restaurant at 702 State St. for alleged wage theft when officers arrived in response to restaurant patrons’ complaints that ULA’s protest was too loud. The New Haven Police Department then arrested Lugo for disorderly conduct and for refusing to cooperate with police requests for Lugo to silence his bullhorn.
Cerame wrote in his letter that ULA has a constitutional right to protest peacefully on the sidewalk and that the group’s use of bullhorns and amplifiers did not violate state law, as the officer who made the arrest alleges. Cerame also said that restaurant patrons who complained to police about a noise disturbance did not have a constitutional right to eat in quiet.
“It totally blew over my head when I heard this,” Cerame said. “I was agape. These are genuinely good people and I’m just a Joe who cares a lot about them.”
Though the letter does not make any specific threats of litigation, Cerame said his message was intended to warn the city that he will file litigation if prosecutors proceed to charge Lugo or if the NHPD carries out similar arrests.
“If this kind of nonsense keeps happening then there is going to be a lawsuit,” Cerame said. “It’s going to happen if I have to do it through the ACLU or if I have to pay for it myself.”
Cerame said that in late 2010 and early 2011, it was commonplace for police officers to ask ULA protestors for ID cards when they responded to noise complaints about the group’s protests. Cerame noted that police would try to dissuade ULA members from protesting by telling them city employers could file Freedom of Information Act requests to discover their identities and blacklist them from employment.
Though the police may have had the best interests of ULA members in mind, Cerame said any attempt to collect their identities or dissuade protesting violates their constitutional right to protest. He added that though the police stopped collecting ULA protesters’ IDs after ULA brought the issue to the ACLU’s attention in 2011, he is concerned that police may have resumed this practice.
Karim Calle, a ULA organizer, said she is hopeful the charges against Lugo will be dropped. But she said Lugo’s exoneration will not be enough to assuage immigrants’ fears of being arrested while legally protesting.
“Because of Lugo’s arrest, we know that there are changes that need to be made within the NHPD in terms of what are the reasons for arresting someone if they are anonymously protesting,” Calle said.
She added that just before his arrest, Lugo and other protestors were not using profane language or acting in a way that would cause customers to think illegal activity was occurring outside of Goodfellas.
Calle is one of two ULA members who will attend the next meeting of the Community and Police Relations Task Force, a committee the city formed in March to improve the relationship between police and New Haven community members. Harp proposed inviting the two ULA members at a meeting on Wednesday.
Lugo returns to court Jan. 5, his attorney, Diane Polan, said. She added that Lugo may learn at the court hearing what charges prosecutors will press, if any.