ATLANTA - A national gay rights group filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the city of Atlanta and the Atlanta Police Department on behalf of 19 people who say they were illegally searched and detained during a late-night raid on a crowded gay bar.
The lawsuit filed by Lambda Legal and other groups contends that the police department backed an illegal policy of searching and detaining every patron of the Atlanta Eagle Bar, regardless of whether they were suspected of a crime. It said terrorized patrons were forced to lie on beer-soaked floors while police conducted background checks and hurled anti-gay slurs.
None of the 62 patrons were arrested during the Sept. 10 raid on the midtown Atlanta bar, but eight employees were charged with code violations.
Roger Bhandari, the city's attorney, declined comment because he has not yet reviewed the lawsuit.
Police officials, who also declined comment, said at the time they were responding to anonymous tips alleging drug use and sexual activity at the bar. Police records show that undercover officers had also been to the club and witnessed men having sex while others watched.
The raid has galvanized the city's gay community, leading upset activists to host rallies, prod Atlanta's mayoral candidates and file complaints claiming the officers used excessive force and anti-gay language. The legal challenge is the strongest step yet, calling for a stop to similar bar raids and financial damages for the victim.
"The police thought they could get away with something that is so blatantly off the chain illegal," said Dan Grossman, an attorney for several of the plaintiffs. "They thought this was a soft target of people who wouldn't defend themselves, but they would do this to anyone."
Four plaintiffs said they didn't see any illegal activity at the bar at the time of the raid, and that the patrons were enjoying drinks, watching TV and playing pool when the police came in. Several said they thought the bar was being invaded by criminals, not uniformed officers.
"My first thought was, 'We're getting robbed,'" said Geoffrey Calhoun, 35, who is a 911 dispatcher. He said he felt "dehumanized" by the raid.
Mark Danak was relaxing at the bar after his weekly choir practice and had just asked the bartender to flip the TV to the Georgia Tech football game when he heard an officer shout "Hit the ground." He said he spent the next hour with his face on the floor.
"I'm sorry, that was not right," said Danak, a 38-year-old IT operator. "When rights get violated like this, people need to stand up."
The lawsuit seeks police documents detailing how often these types of raids are conducted and asks a federal judge to block them. Gerry Weber of the Southern Center for Human Rights said doing so would be a first step in delivering justice to the bar's patrons.
"It's not about gay or straight, black or white," said Weber. "It's about innocents being treated as criminals."