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The city of Houston is facing a litigation backlash over the arrest of nearly 300 people from the parking lot of a Kmart during police raids intended to curb illegal drag racing. All charges from the arrests have been dropped, but dozens of angry plaintiffs are pushing ahead with lawsuits that could cost the city millions in legal damages, their lawyers assert. The raids occurred late into the weekend nights of Aug. 17 and 18, with a warm-up raid on Friday outside the restaurant James Coney Island and the bigger sting late Saturday night at Kmart. Police cornered off a parking lot that serves a 24-hour Kmart Super Center and a 1950s-style Sonic Drive-In that serves as a popular teen hangout. In all, 278 people — most of them teen-agers of all races — were arrested on charges of curfew violations and trespassing. Thus far, the only complaint actually filed over the incident is Ratliff v. City of Houston, No. 200248978 (Harris Co., Texas, Dist. Ct.), which has been removed to federal court. Houston lawyer Michael Kerensky represents Brandi Ratliff and William Grenwelge, who claim their quick shopping stop at Kmart ended in false arrest and civil rights violations. With guns drawn, police officers forced the couple from their car and arrested them, Kerensky alleges. Ratliff, 18 and a straight-A student, was allegedly jailed with a prostitute and a murder suspect until her mother posted bail. Her boyfriend, Grenwelge, whose paperwork the police allegedly lost, was not released until around midnight the following day. Kerensky said he has spoken with at least four other lawyers who are weighing lawsuits, including Randall Kallinen, a solo practitioner and American Civil Liberties Union member, who represents about 60 plaintiffs. A ‘BIZARRE’ SCENE According to Kallinen, the raid was a “bizarre scene” with 77 police officers, several with guns drawn, and two helicopters circling overhead. Officers never patted down the suspects, he alleged, creating a “tremendous danger” for everyone trapped within the area. “If only one person would have pulled a gun … whoa,” he said. Houston Mayor Lee Brown has criticized the incident, although the city has not issued a formal apology, said senior assistant city attorney Robert Cambrice. But, he added, “I think the police chief has said we didn’t have probable cause and that it was likely we acted hastily.” The Houston district attorney’s office is “deeply involved” in investigating any allegations of police misconduct, Cambrice said. “So far we haven’t been served with any lawsuits, so we don’t know the extent of the damages.” Cambrice doesn’t expect that the city will have to pay heavily for the incident. Large judgments are usually only levied in excessive-force lawsuits, he explained. “No one was beaten,” he said. “No one was shot.” Nor does he expect the plaintiffs to succeed on punitive claims. “If they’re looking at the city as deep pockets, we’ve got two precedents that say you can’t get punitives against a municipality.” “This is not a money-maker for any of us,” said Kerensky, whose complaint does ask for punitive damages. “I just think that we … need to make a strong stand against this kind of thing,” he asserted. “In this post-9/11 age of fear and insecurity, we don’t want the authorities to think that they can act like this is a police state as opposed to a democracy.”

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