FOXBORO, MASSACHUSETTS – Police Chief Edward O’Leary has been sued by two concertgoers detained for alleged drunkenness before a Bruce Springsteen show at Gillette Stadium last month in a civil action that could have a profound impact on police procedure at future concerts.
The suit by Paul Weldner and Dr. Timothy Dutton, both from Maine, was filed in federal court, alleging they were held under an illegal policy in which police simply round up people they think are drunk.
An attorney for the men says he’s seeking class-action status for the suit, alleging the police policy has been in effect at other concerts affecting hundreds of people, if not more.
Weldner and Dutton are suing to strike down the policy and for unspecified damages, citing “emotional distress and humiliation.”
In the Springsteen incident, the pair was on a bus trip organized by Dutton to take about 50 fans from the Portland, Maine, area to the Aug. 18 show at Gillette Stadium.
Both men were drinking, but neither was “incapacitated” – the state’s legal standard for putting people into protective custody, the lawsuit said.
“We are confident that … (police) were basically casting the net too wide,” said David Milton, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “The statute’s called protective custody. It’s not meant to be preventive detention.”
Milton said he believes more than 1,000 people were also wrongly detained under O’Leary’s policy, including at the Aug. 24-25 New England Country Music Festival at Gillette Stadium. He’s seeking class-action status.
O’Leary said Monday that he hadn’t read the lawsuit and couldn’t comment.
Sixty-six people were taken into protective custody at the Springsteen concert, which drew an audience of 46,700 fans.
That was more than was taken into custody at last year’s Springsteen appearance, but O’Leary said after the concert fans were mostly well-behaved, calling them a “more mature” crowd.
A week later at the two-night country music fest featuring Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw, local and state police took 617 people into protective custody.
O’Leary, who serves as head of security for events at Gillette Stadium, said after the country-western concerts: “We set a higher bar for the protection of the public that goes to these events. Several of the young people taken into protective custody were so impaired, we feared for their lives and they were sent to the hospital.”
According to the suit, Weldner and Dutton had some drinks while they listened to music and watched Springsteen videos on the ride down, and both could feel the alcohol’s effects. But police had no justification to detain either one, the suit said.
Weldner, 25, said officers handcuffed him, claiming he was “too drunk,” after he stumbled briefly while moving from the sidewalk to the street as he walked in a crowd to the stadium.
Weldner said police repeatedly refused to give him a sobriety test and held him for more than six hours at the stadium, then at the police station, the suit said.
The lawsuit said Dutton was in the ticket line when he protested that police were taking his girlfriend into custody. They told him to get back in line, and when he didn’t, they detained him for six hours, releasing him after the show about 1 a.m., according to the suit.
Milton said a breath test indicated his client had a blood alcohol level of 0.07, below the legal level of 0.10 to be presumed drunk. Drunken driving charges can leveled in Massachusetts if the driver registers 0.08 percent on an alcohol breath test.
And under state law, even if a person is drunk in public, that’s not illegal and hasn’t been for decades, Milton said.
To be held in protective custody, a person must be “incapacitated,” meaning they’re either unconscious, in need of medical attention, being disorderly or likely to suffer or cause physical harm or damage property, the suit said.
Milton said his clients were none of these things.