By Jonathan Allen and Joseph Ax
NEW YORK, Jan 15 (Reuters) - The city of New York announced on Wednesday that it agreed to pay close to $18 million to settle hundreds of federal civil lawsuits brought by people who claimed they were unfairly arrested during the 2004 Republican National Convention.
The New York Civil Liberties Union, which filed the first cases related to the convention arrests, said it is the "largest protest settlement in history."
The deal requires approval from U.S. District Judge Richard Sullivan in Manhattan federal court. It would end nearly a decade of litigation in all but a handful of cases that stemmed from the arrest of more than 1,800 people during demonstrations at the convention where President George W. Bush was nominated to run for a second term in office.
Most of those arrested were protesters, while others said they were bystanders not involved in the rallies. Some also were journalists.
Many were held in a temporary detention facility, where some claimed they were kept for two days in squalid conditions before seeing a judge, far exceeding the 24 hours that New York courts deem reasonable.
In the joint announcement from the city and the plaintiffs, the city defended the actions of police officers as constitutional.
"The settlement is not an admission of liability by the city; rather, it is a recognition by both sides that the agreed-upon settlement is a fair resolution of plaintiffs' remaining claims," the statement said.
The mass arrests led to a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 1,200 people as well as approximately 600 individual lawsuits. The city said it had previously settled 142 of the individual claims for a total of $1.8 million.
If the deal is approved, the plaintiffs would receive about $10.3 million, or an average of $6,400 each. The city would also pay their legal fees, about $7.6 million.
City lawyers said they were "proud of the major victories" they had won during the litigation, including a ruling that holding arrestees until court appearances rather than issuing summonses was justified.
Christopher Dunn, the NYCLU's legal director, said the First Amendment, not the city, was the victor in the case.
"Any lawsuit that results in an $18-million settlement for protesters is a lawsuit that will send a message to every single police department in the country and to the (New York police department) that they cannot do this again," he said.
Dunn on Wednesday joined dozens of plaintiffs and their lawyers on the steps of City Hall, where they called the arrests a coordinated effort to intimidate protesters into silence.
Nazie Shekarchi, a chef from Los Angeles who was visiting New York during the convention, said she had just finished browsing the farmers' market in Union Square when police mistook her for a protester.
"I disappeared for 48 hours," she said. "I'm a law-abiding citizen and could not imagine this could happen in an American city."
In a ruling related to the case, Sullivan last year found that the city had erred in arresting hundreds of people at a 2004 protest without establishing that probable cause existed for each individual arrest.
The city's law department said it had spent approximately $16 million defending the RNC-related cases. About half a dozen cases stemming from the convention have yet to be resolved, including several people who say they were injured.
The police department's policies of mass arrest came under scrutiny again in 2011, when thousands of people were arrested during Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. Those arrests led to several federal lawsuits, including a pending class action filed on behalf of more than 700 people arrested during a march across the Brooklyn Bridge. (Reporting by Jonathan Allen and Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone and Amanda Kwan)