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K-Mart lawsuits can proceed

It’s never a good thing for a police force defending itself against various lawsuits to be labelled almost totalitarian by the judge.

Calling the operation “almost totalitarian,” a federal judge says a Houston police plan that led to 278 arrests in a Kmart parking lot almost three years ago was unconstitutional.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Nancy Atlas allows all 10 lawsuits filed in the wake of the Aug. 18, 2002, mass arrest, and a smaller operation the previous night, to proceed.

The “plan to detain all persons … with no regard for the existence of open businesses and their customers, is facially unconstitutional,” Atlas wrote in an opinion made public this week.


Atlas threw out a number of the lawsuits’ claims, but allowed the plaintiffs to go forward with allegations that Bradford knew about the mass arrest plan, known as the “Jackson plan” for the officer who devised it.

“It reflected an unjustified, almost totalitarian, regime of suspicionless stops and was completely inconsistent with the Fourth Amendment rights Americans hold dear,” Atlas wrote, referring to the right to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures.

She also allowed them to go forward with an accusation that a police “zero-tolerance” policy customarily allowed improper arrests and that Bradford knew about it.

Bradford has denied knowing about the plan or the policy.

I’d love to know which of the plaintiffs’ claims were tossed, but never mind that. We’re approaching the three-year anniversary of the great K-Mart Kiddie Roundup and we’re still nowhere near the end of the story.

Joseph Lanza, an attorney representing more than 60 of the more than 100 plaintiffs, called Atlas’ ruling “a signal victory for the plaintiffs because it continues to allow them to press their claims in federal court.”

Senior Assistant City Attorney Robert Cambrice said it was merely another step in a long process. He predicted the lawsuits will never reach trial.

“When you look at the total picture, the city is still in great shape,” Cambrice said.

They can’t both be right, but I do agree with Attorney Cambrice in one regard – I don’t think these lawsuits will go to trial. I think they’ll eventually be settled out of court. My gut feeling is that taking them to a jury would represent a sizeable crapshoot for both sides, and as such there’s plenty of room to come to an accomodation that should be suitable to all.

On the other hand, with ten suits total, there’s sure to be some wide variance in the level of risk acceptance among the plaintiffs, meaning that one or more may decide to take that dice roll and hope for the best. If so, then whatever the outcome is of those cases, I’ll bet the others that follow will either get dropped or quickly settled once a verdict is in.

But I’m just guessing. Any actual lawyers want to weigh in on this, please be my guest.

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  1. Tim says:

    Yeah, but who ultimately pays for these lawsuits? (Hint: It’s not the police who screwed up.)

  2. Kent says:

    I hadn’t heard about this event before reading it here but then I’m not from Houston.

    What’s the back story? I read the article and something seems missing. Were these black or Hispanic kids? Was there something that got them targeted?

  3. Kent: Where to begin? I’ve got a whole category devoted to this topic.

    Executive summary: On August 18, 2002, Houston police raided the parking lot of a K-Mart on Westheimer, arresting over 400 teenagers. The police were conducting a raid designed to target street racing, but no such activity was found at the location. Nonetheless, everyone there, including some people in a nearby Sonic, were arrested, handcuffed, and brought downtown where many of them pled guilty to trespassing charges so they could get out of jail and get their cars out of impound.

    It quickly became a huge scandal, with all charges eventually getting dropped and the architects of the raid getting fired. The fired officers claimed that the raid was done with the knowledge of then-Police Chief C.O. Bradford; he denies this and said the cops in question were acting on their own.

    Scroll to the bottom of that category link and read the first few posts to get a flavor of it.

  4. Patrick says:

    Kent, check Chuck’s indexed categories on the side. The K-Mart story has 63 entiries which could take you the better part of the morning.

    I am slightly conflicted by this story. I think the round-up was about the dumbest thing a professional police force as ever done. To call it a plan of any kind would be stretching it since most sting plans involve consulation with the DA who I would hope would have mumbled something about “reasonable cause”. And really it doesn’t take a lawyer to clue you into that one, just somebody with cable and a week to watch “Law and Order” reruns.

    Of course they didn’t and now, unless there is some piece of info I haven’t heard yet, Houston PD is going to be paying out some hefty damages as they should.

    But in the end, as a taxpayer in Houston I’m the guy who has to pay the bill.

  5. Dud says:

    Dear Charles:
    My guess is that the main allegations in the case was based upon 42US1983-civil right deprivation-. What was probably dismissed was the individual claims vs the cops and what was sustained were those claims that show that the Gov’t was the author of the violations as opposed to individual actions by the cops. If you can show that the civil rights violations were part of a Gov’t. conceived plan or authorized action, you survive a motion to dismiss against the gov’t entity. In layman language, it’s better to have a deep pocket, e.g. the gov’t than have a claim against the individual cops who don’t have a deep pocket.
    My guess would be that the presiding judge, absent an appeal, will have a settlement conference or order mediation. Time will tell, but you estimation that this case will settle is pretty sound.

  6. ttyler5 says:

    “What’s the back story? I read the article and something seems missing. Were these black or Hispanic kids? Was there something that got them targeted?”

    The parking lot that was raided was being used by kids and older people gathering to watch, as well as take part in, street drag racing events, which had caused a fatal traffic accident caught on video tape and played on the local tv news, and the whole mess generated hundreds of complaints from local businesses residents.

    This crowd of course had everything with it you would expect, including drug dealing, drug use, drunks, the presence of local gang members, and etc, etc — it was just another urban copycat of the LA street drag meets glorified in the movies and in violent video games.

    When the cops showed up, the kids scattered into nearby hamburger joints, coffee shops, etc, and then of course lied their rear ends off, saying that they weren’t with the group gathered for the racing, the drug dealing etc etc.

    HPD was attempting to break up the street racing and the unlawful, idiotic mess surrounding it, a perfectly lawful exercise of police authority.

    Judge Atlas’s opinion, as well as her language, are nonsense, and she will be overturned on appeal and probably admonished for her ridiculous language.

    To give you an idea of what an awful judge she is, she is the 1995 Clinton appointee who overturned Judge Hill’s gag order in the Andrea Yates case, a decision which allowed every muck-raking pulp media outlet in America planning to make a fast buck off the Yates case into the courtroom as “legitimate press.”

    That former police cheif Bradford won’t back his men is par for the course for him, he was an appointee of our former Mayor, Lee “Baby Doc” Brown, the stench of whose inept and even corrupt administration of the city of Houston is still hangs heavy with the smog over downtown.

  7. HisDad says:


    My kid was arrested during this thing. He had come in from out of town to see his dying grandfather, who we had to sign up for hospice that day.

    He got arrested for going to the Sonic to get a limeaid. My question is this: was he a street racer, a drug dealer, a drunk, or would you just describe him as “unlawful, idiotic mess”?