Wall Street Lawyer Arrested for Talking to Occupy Wall Street Protester: Lawsuit

Police arrest Stephen Kass for talking to a protester, a new federal lawsuit alleges. Courtesy of Stephen Kass

Stephen Kass, a 73-year-old lawyer and grandfather of seven, was walking to his cello lesson one day last September when cops arrested him. The charge? Talking to an Occupy Wall Street Protester, a new federal lawsuit alleges.

Kass, an environmental lawyer who works on Wall Street, ambled by Zuccotti Park on his way to the train Sept. 17, 2013, the second anniversary of Occupy. There, Kass says, he stopped to look at a sign reading "Tax the Rich," and tried striking up a conversation with two protesters, one of whom was carrying the sign.

"I didn't think I was doing anything in the slightest bit unusual," Kass told Newsweek. "I thought I was being a reasonable, responsible citizen. I was actually trying to find out what it was they were advocating."

During this brief chat, Police Officer K. Ernst approached Kass and told him to move. Kass, who maintains he was not blocking pedestrians on the sidewalk or vehicles in the road, declined. Other officers joined Ernst and demanded Kass move. Then, Police Officer Michael Alfieri grabbed Kass' right arm "in two places," the suit alleges. Kass said "take your hands off me," but Alfieri did not—instead, Alfieri and another officer cuffed Kass.

They patted him down, searched his shoulder bag, and "pushed" Kass into a police car at Liberty Street and Broadway, and told him that he was being taken to Central Booking. A few minutes later, two other officers told Kass that if he "stayed 'quiet' and did not 'cause any trouble' he would simply be taken to the precinct and given a summons.'" They indeed took Kass to the precinct, and then asked him whether he had ever been arrested or detained, Kass said.

His reply: "I told them the only time I had been detained was when I was as a member of a New York City Bar Association delegation that went to Asuncion, Paraguay to investigate human rights abuses by the police," Kass said. "They did not respond to that."

Kass received a summons, and he complied, appearing in court twice, but the "officers failed to show up at court," according to the civil complaint. The case was dismissed.

A spokesperson for the NYPD denied that Kass was arrested, stating in an e-mail to Newsweek that he was issued a summons in lieu of an arrest.

"That's absurd," Andrew Celli, a partner with Emery, Celli, Brinckerhoff + Abady LLP, who is representing Kass, said in response to the NYPD's position. "He was handcuffed, detained for over 90 minutes, transported to the precinct, and required to appear in court several times. It was an arrest and a prosecution. If their lawyers argued in court that it wasn't, they would be sanctioned. Seriously."

Kass' civil rights lawsuit—which alleges false arrest, malicious prosecution, assault, and battery—comes amid drastically increased scrutiny of NYPD tactics toward protesters, accused quality-of-life offenders, and minorities.

Added Kass: "I bet that if I were a younger person, or if I were a person of color, they would have been even more aggressive or violent. I didn't say those things, but I certainly thought them."

Celli said that their goal with the suit is to educate police officers about protesters' and observers rights.

"Unfortunately, cases like this arise with depressing regularity," Celli said. "It seems that in New York, sometimes police don't understand that sidewalks and public spaces are for more than transportation, but are places where people engage. When they don't understand that, people get arrested, and that's what happened to Stephen Kass."'

The New York City Law Department commented to Newsweek that: "We are reviewing the lawsuit."