Federal Judge Rejects Oregon’s Efforts to Block Federal Arrests of Portland Protesters

By Janita Kan
Janita Kan
Janita Kan
Janita Kan is a reporter based in New York covering the Justice Department, courts, and First Amendment.
July 25, 2020Updated: July 25, 2020

A federal judge denied an effort by Oregon’s attorney general seeking to prevent federal law enforcement agents from making arrests amid violent rioting in Portland.

Oregon’s attorney general, Ellen Rosenblum, filed a lawsuit against several federal agencies last week alleging that their officers have engaged in policing tactics that have violated the constitutional rights of residents in the state. In particular, she accused the officers of allegedly detaining protesters on the streets of Portland and placing them in unmarked vehicles without probable cause.

Rosenblum asked the court for a temporary restraining order to block the officers from using such tactics, to prohibit arrests that lack probable cause, and to order the agents to identify themselves and their agency before arresting an individual.

U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman rejected the request on Friday, saying in his 14-page ruling (pdf) that the state lacked the ability to bring a case on behalf of the protesters, also known as standing, partly because Rosenblum failed to show that the interest of the state had been harmed.

“In the first place, although it involves allegations of harm done to protesters by law enforcement, no protester is a plaintiff here,” Mosman wrote in his ruling. “In the second place, it is not seeking redress for any harm that has been done to protesters. Instead, it seeks an injunction against future conduct, which is also an extraordinary form of relief.”

Rosenblum said she was disappointed by Mosman’s decision but vowed to continue fighting.

“While I respect Judge Mosman, I would ask this question: If the state of Oregon does not have standing to prevent this unconstitutional conduct by unidentified federal agents running roughshod over her citizens, who does? Individuals mistreated by these federal agents can sue for damages, but they can’t get a judge to restrain this unlawful conduct more generally. Today’s ruling suggests that there may be no recourse on behalf of our state, and if so that is extremely troubling,” she said in a statement.

The Trump administration’s decision to surge federal forces to Portland, Oregon, to protect federal buildings and monuments has drawn widespread scrutiny. The city has seen over 55 consecutive days of rioting and violence. Rioting began in the city since late May in the wake of George Floyd’s death, but local and state officials said the unrest further escalated after federal forces were dispatched to the city.

Local and state officials and congressional lawmakers have strongly criticized the Trump administration over allegations that the federal agents were engaged in “unconstitutional” tactics to arrest protesters. These protesters alleged that federal agents wearing camouflage and tactical gear without identifying insignia are detaining individuals and placing them into unmarked vehicles without stating the basis for an arrest, according to various accounts made to media outlets.

The accuracy of these reports has been disputed by acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, who says the federal officers wear multi-camouflage that have insignia that read “Police” and that the operations only target and arrest individuals who have been identified as committing criminal acts.

These reports have sparked several lawsuits filed against the Trump administration, including Rosenblum’s suit.

A federal judge in a separate case on Thursday granted a temporary restraining order requested by a group of journalists and legal observers. That lawsuit accuses federal law enforcement agents of assaulting and intimidating journalists and legal observers, and suppressing them from reporting on the events amid the Portland protests and riots.

The judge in that case, Judge Michael Simon, ordered federal agents to cease arresting, threatening to arrest, or using physical force against journalists and legal observers. They are also blocked from seizing property and equipment from journalists and legal observers such as photographic equipment, audio- or video recording equipment, or press passes. Simon also ruled that journalists and legal observers do not need to follow orders to disperse.

“Without journalists and legal observers, there is only the government’s side of the story to explain why a ‘riot’ was declared and the public streets were ‘closed’ and whether law enforcement acted properly in effectuating that order,” Simon wrote in his order (pdf).

That order is expected to expire after 14 days.