Anti-Trump protesters sue San Diego over arrests at demonstration

A protester covers his eyes as police try to clear the area after Trump supporters and anti-Trump protesters clashed.
A protester covers his eyes as police try to clear the area after Trump supporters and anti-Trump protesters clashed after the then-presidential candidate held a rally at the San Diego Convention Center.
(Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)

A federal lawsuit filed against the city and county of San Diego alleges law enforcement agencies wrongly arrested and detained protesters at a rally last year for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.

The complaint in U.S. District Court in San Diego against Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman, Sheriff Bill Gore and the city and county governments — as well as the law enforcement officers who worked the event at San Diego’s downtown convention center — contends the defendants “suppressed the freedom of speech of plaintiffs and other members of the public who had committed no crime.”

Ten people are named as plaintiffs and are being represented by attorney Bryan Pease, who was among those arrested.

“Unless they are actually posing some kind of threat or unlawful or violent activity, you can’t arrest people just for being there,” said Pease, a candidate for San Diego City Council.


The Sheriff’s Department referred questions to the county, which declined to comment on the litigation. The San Diego city attorney’s office said it was conferring with clients and did not comment.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages. It also asks the court to require the city and the county to destroy records of the plaintiffs’ arrests and to reveal whether the information was shared with any other agencies.

Pease, who is not a plaintiff, said the lawsuit was filed more than a year after the arrests because of time-consuming legal processes and for a statute of limitations to pass so that the government could not charge his clients with a crime to retaliate for their lawsuit.

Trump’s rally drew thousands of supporters and protesters to downtown, as well as hundreds of police officers who were prepared to control a riot. While there were small fights and vulgar exchanges between the candidate’s allies and detractors, there was no widespread violence.


At one point, officers drove the crowds from the area. Police declared an unlawful assembly and told people in both English and Spanish that they needed to leave the area.

Police officers can declare an unlawful assembly in some circumstances, but protesters still have rights, Pease said.

“That doesn’t mean that any time two individuals do something wrong that you can suspend 1st Amendment rights for an indefinite period in an indefinite area,” he said.

As police tried to control the crowd, some protesters, including Pease and the plaintiffs, headed down Harbor Drive toward the Barrio Logan neighborhood. Pease said he used a megaphone to tell officers that they were violating protesters’ 1st Amendment rights before he was tackled.

“Police had a very heavy-handed response that was overwhelming and out of proportion to any threat,” he said.

Zimmerman had said that officers effectively responded to the crowds.

“We came in very quickly and decisively,” Zimmerman said the day of the rally. “The last thing we want is a mob mentality.”

Police arrested 35 people that day, and 18 people received medical attention.


Stewart writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune


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