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Dec 28, 2010 9:24 PM by Alison Haynes

Bridge blockade claims thrown out

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A federal judge has thrown out the remaining claims in a lawsuit that said police violated people's constitutional rights by firing warning shots to stop them from crossing a bridge to escape flooding from Hurricane Katrina.
Having dismissed about 90 percent of the claims in September, U.S. District Judge Mary Ann Vial Lemmon recently rejected the rest, ending the lawsuit filed on Katrina's first anniversary.
The plaintiffs - six individuals and a class of more than 200 Regional Transit Authority employees and their families - alleged that Gretna police and Jefferson Parish Sheriff's deputies violated their rights by firing the shots and using excessive force while barring them from crossing the Crescent City Connection to escape the flooded east bank of the Mississippi River.
Lemmon, in an 11-page ruling dated Dec. 17, called the blockade a "reasonable restriction." She cited "compelling safety and welfare" considerations, including heavy vehicular traffic on the bridge and lack of food, water and shelter on the river's west bank for evacuees.
Attorneys for the defendants told The Times Picayune the ruling vindicates Gretna Police Chief Arthur Lawson Jr. and Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, named as a defendant after Sheriff Harry Lee died.
"The court has now unequivocally stated there were no constitutional violations or wrongdoing by Chief Lawson or any of his officers," said Franz Zibilich, an attorney for Gretna Police.
"Police chiefs should have the discretion and legal authority to limit travel during extremely difficult times after catastrophes such as Katrina," he said.
Lawson said the ruling backs his contention that the controversial blockade was "the correct and rational course of action."
"We had no food or water on the West Bank. Had the evacuees been allowed to cross the bridge, they would have been in a far worse situation without any transportation to bring them anywhere," Lawson said. "If I were I faced with the same situation today, I would make the same decision."
Adele Owen, a Baton Rouge attorney for the plaintiffs, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
The ruling comes in the last of four cases filed in federal court over the Sept. 1, 2005, decision by Gretna, Jefferson Parish and Crescent City Connection police to prevent pedestrians from using the bridge.
The other cases were dismissed, and the Sheriffs' Office settled with an Algiers family for $10,000.
At least one lawsuit related to the bridge blockade remains in New Orleans Civil District Court.


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