An animal rights activist who claims he was wrongfully arrested two years ago after protesting outside of a South Philadelphia Whole Foods store has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Philadelphia and the police officer who took him into custody.

Philadelphia resident Edward Coffin, who is being represented by attorneys with the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, maintains in his complaint that city police officer Dominick Cole was in the wrong when he arrested Coffin on Dec. 23, 2009 after the manager of the Whole Foods market complained about Coffin’s presence outside of the store.

Coffin, an animal rights advocate, was leafleting and picketing outside of the store, located at 10th and South streets, when Cole and another unidentified officer approached Coffin and informed him he was breaking city ordinance with his activities, according to the complaint.

Coffin protested, saying that he was not on Whole Foods property, but rather was standing on a public sidewalk, but Cole responded by telling Coffin that he wasn’t allowed to protest in a “business district.”

Coffin then asked Cole for the exact city ordinance that prevents such activity, but Cole simply placed Coffin under arrest and transported him to a local police precinct for booking, the suit claims.

Once at the station, the lawsuit states, Cole showed Coffin a copy of the section of the city code that prohibits such activity, although the specific ordinance mentions only a prohibition on “commercial” leafleting without a permit.

Instead of releasing Coffin in light of the discrepancy, the suit claims, Cole wrote Coffin a summary citation for violating a different city ordinance, this one relating to a prohibition on parading, processing, assembling, occupying and marching on a public street without a permit.

“Section 12-1109 does not, nor could it, require a permit for leafleting by one person or a small group,” the lawsuit states. “Indeed, Philadelphia’s demonstration permit regulations make clear that the city does not require a demonstration permit for groups of less than seventy-five people.”

Coffin was released after two hours in custody and he was given a court date of Jan. 29, 2010, the suit states. When he showed up for court, however, he was informed the charges against him had been dropped the day of his arrest; this was the first time Coffin learned of this development.

The lawsuit claims that Coffin’s arrest was done without probable cause and that it was done to retaliate against Coffin for exercising his right to free speech.

“Upon information and belief, Defendant Cole arrested Mr. Coffin because of the complaint by the store manager and not because he was, in fact, acting illegally,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit contains further allegations, claiming the police department has long had a practice or custom of harassing individuals engaged in First Amendment activities, and/or not being properly trained to deal with people engaged in such activities.

The suit claims the department has a practice of using “pretextual arrests for offenses such as disorderly conduct, obstruction of the highway and City Ordinance violations to remove individuals engaged in protected First Amendment activities from public areas in Philadelphia and to deter those individuals from returning to such areas to engage in protected First Amendment activity.”

The complaint alleges that outside of the members of the Civil Affairs division, which specifically handles protests, labor disputes and similar activities, uniformed officers in Philadelphia are rarely given proper training to deal with people engaged in leafleting and protest activities.

“The Department has known for years that uniformed officers like Defendant Cole violate protesters’ rights because of this lack of training,” the lawsuit states.

The suit goes on to claim that Internal Affairs investigators identified the problem and issued such training warnings to citywide district commanders, but the advice seems to have fallen on deaf ears, as is proven by the fact that the memos were sent out two years prior to Coffin’s arrest.

The lawsuit accuses the defendants of false arrest and malicious prosecution.

It also claims violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments with regard to freedom of speech and assembly.

Coffin seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, along with attorney’s fees and other litigation costs.

The suit was filed Dec. 22 at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania by Mary Catherine Roper, a staff attorney with the ACLU, and Paul Messing, a lawyer practicing with the city firm of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg.

The federal case number is 2:11-cv-07794-JD.

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