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Dozens of black partygoers were arrested over less than an ounce of marijuana. Now they’re suing.

Members of the “Cartersville 70” were arrested after a small amount of marijuana was found at a house party. They say the arrest turned their lives “into a nightmare.”

Members of the “Cartersville 70” discuss their arrest with the media in early 2018.
Members of the “Cartersville 70” discuss their arrest with the media in early 2018.
WSB-TV 2 Atlanta

On the night of December 30, 2017, dozens of young adults attended a birthday party at a home in Cartersville, Georgia. But a night of fun quickly changed when police arrived at the party, arresting more than 60 people after less than an ounce of marijuana was discovered inside the home.

Now some of those arrested that night — part of a larger group of predominantly young people of color called the “Cartersville 70” — have filed a lawsuit against the city, several dozen members of the Cartersville Police Department, and members of the Bartow County-Cartersville Drug Task Force, arguing that they were unconstitutionally arrested and were subjected to mistreatment after police detained them.

According to the lawsuit, which was filed by seven of the 65 people arrested that night, party attendees were unlawfully arrested and many of them underwent invasive strip searches after being transported to a local jail. Some say they were denied medical services while being detained for days. The group also argues that booking photos were illegally shared on county websites, creating a “domino effect” that cost several of the party attendees their jobs.

Of the dozens detained, 50 were black, and the majority of those arrested were in their late teens and early 20s. Charges against 64 of the 65 people arrested were dropped early in 2018 after local district attorney determined that there was insufficient evidence to support the charges. The remaining drug possession charges against one person were dropped after a judge ruled that police illegally entered the party that night. The case quickly spread on social media last year, with one legal analyst calling the mass arrest “an incredible waste of resources.”

More than a year later, the plaintiffs argue that the events of that night have continued to affect them. “Each of our clients has had their life turned into a nightmare in a lot of ways,” Gerry Weber, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, told the Appeal, a criminal justice news outlet. “They’ve got this scar on their records that will never disappear.”

The seven plaintiffs have filed a class action suit on behalf of all of those arrested; they argue that their ordeal calls attention to the ways that arrests can disrupt the lives of young people of color. The suit calls for financial restitution and demands that Cartersville police change several of its policies.

Members of the Cartersville 70 say they were “subjected to humiliating treatment”

According to the lawsuit, the incident began in the early morning hours of December 31, 2017, when Cartersville police officer Joshua Coker responded to reports of gunfire at an apartment complex in the neighborhood near the home where the party was taking place. As he drove by that residence, Coker said that he smelled marijuana. The lawsuit notes that Coker’s windows were up at this time.

After calling for backup, Coker and two other officers approached the home and spoke to four men outside. The men confirmed that they did not hear any gunshots in the area. Coker and the other officers then entered the home without a warrant or the consent of anyone at the party, according to the suit.

“Over the next two hours,” the lawsuit states, police “confined every visitor to the inside of the home or outside, where temperatures ranged from 20-30 degrees.” The lawsuit goes on to say that “during this time, the visitors were subjected to humiliating treatment,” including being denied use of the bathroom and told to not use their phones. The plaintiffs say that officers told them they were being “detained because of the marijuana smell allegedly coming from the private home.”

After obtaining a search warrant two hours later, officers began searching the partygoers. The lawsuit notes that police “found no drugs, drug-related paraphernalia, or other contraband during these searches.” Still, “despite the lack of any evidence tying any one visitor to a crime, an officer announced that everyone was going to jail.”

The police department claimed that officers found unregistered weapons, marijuana, and cocaine at the residence. However, further investigation showed that officers recovered less than an ounce of marijuana at the scene and that the weapons recovered were legally owned.

When they arrived at the jail, the party attendees say that officers treated them harshly, locking them in small holding cells as they held up signs reading “THE PARTY CREW.”

Here’s how the Appeal describes what happened:

Once inside the jail, they were held for one to three days in crowded cells that felt unheated, and some lacked sleeping pads or blankets, according to the complaint. Each person was strip-searched, including some as young as 17 years old. Some people with medical conditions were denied care, according to the suit.

“One person who experiences seizures informed a jail nurse of her condition but did not receive her anti-seizure medication until the third day of her detention,” the complaint reads. “A pregnant woman was denied prenatal pills and received no care when she vomited repeatedly in a holding cell garbage can.”

When people spoke up about their mistreatment, they were threatened with Tasers, or sent to “isolation cells” for roughly five to seven hours, according to the complaint. The isolation cells did not have beds or blankets.

“Some wrapped toilet paper around their arms, torsos, and feet because they were so cold,” the complaint alleges. “Others exercised to stay warm.”

On January 12, 2018, the district attorney dropped the charges against all but one member of the group.

But the lawsuit argues that those arrested still faced difficulties afterward. One plaintiff, Keylon Woodard, says that his enlistment in the military was delayed because of his arrest. Another plaintiff, Eutychus Wilson, says that his hands were zip-tied and that he was later strip-searched, despite not having any drugs in his possession. Wilson was a high school senior at the time of the arrest and says that he was no longer allowed to practice with his school’s basketball team after the incident, ending his hopes of going to college on a basketball scholarship.

A third plaintiff, a 22-year-old single mother named Nija Guider, told the Appeal that she lost her job after the arrest. It took her two and a half months to find a new job; in the interim, she says she had to go to food pantries to feed her 1-year-old son.

“Everybody was treated inhumanely and talked to like they should expect this,” Atteeyah Hollie, a senior staff attorney at Southern Center for Human Rights, a group representing the plaintiffs, told the Appeal.

Local officials have not commented publicly on the lawsuit, citing the pending litigation. As the case moves forward, the plaintiffs say that they hope their case will prevent an incident like this from happening again, adding that their ordeal calls attention to the particular ways people of color are criminalized for possessing or being around marijuana.

“It’s a different type of hurt when you get arrested for something you didn’t do,” Guider told the Appeal. “On top of that [you’re taking] losses because of something you didn’t do.”