Skateboarders fight 90-day misdemeanor charges for being at Hart Plaza

Skateboarders at the Brewster projects site in 2012. Photo by Steve Neavling.

You could be forgiven for not knowing it’s illegal to skateboard at Hart Plaza on Detroit’s riverfront.

After all, with permission from the city of Detroit, the annual Hart Line skateboarding exhibition transforms Hart Plaza into a makeshift skatepark every May with a network of ramps, rails, ledges and custom-built stair sets that attracts elite international skaters and thousands of fans.

The city also made a sensational pitch to host the X Games in May 2013 with skateboarding and BMX demonstrations downtown.

And the few small signs that indicate it’s illegal to skateboard, cycle or rollerblade at the park are weather-beaten and difficult to read.

Transcending Labor Legacy Monument at Hart Plaza. Photo by Steve Neavling.

On Thursday morning, four skateboarders who were charged with a misdemeanor count of riding a skateboard, a crime that is punishable by up to 90 days in jail, are headed to trial to make the case that they were cited for merely having their skateboards at the park – not riding them – while they hung out at the Transcending Labor Legacy Monument at Hart Plaza. Without warning, they said, police cited them in what their attorney describes as an overreach of power in a city that has some of the highest violent crime rates in the country. Two of the defendants’ friends who were skateboarding pleaded guilty and have been fined and placed on probation.

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“A simple warning would have been enough,” the four skateboarders’ attorney Jordan Zuppke told Motor City Muckraker. “This is a place where people have been skateboarding for decades. People travel from around the country and the world to skateboard at Hart Plaza. Where are the city’s priorities?”

Even if they were skateboarding, Zuppke argues, the city’s aging, deteriorating signs were out of sight and difficult to read.

“Unless a person, while standing at the Labor Legacy Landmark, had military binoculars and x-ray vision, they would never see that skateboarding is ‘prohibited,’” Zuppke said. “This is not reasonable notice and not applicable in this case.”

Charged were Stuart Kersten, Michael Waite, Quentin Boyer and Dominic Palarchio, who range in age from 19 to mid-20s and have no criminal records. Three of the four live in Detroit.

Detroit corporation counsel Melvin Butch Hollowell maintains the skateboarders were warned and ignored police, a claim that the skateboarders adamantly deny.

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These individuals named in this complaint were not ticketed solely because they were skateboarding on Hart Plaza, which is prohibited by city code (except during a special event scheduled by the Recreation Department),” Hollowell said in a written statement. “While proper signage may not have been posted at that time, these individuals were directed to stop their activities by a Detroit police officer.  They chose to ignore the officer’s order, kept skateboarding and that’s the reason they were issued a citation. Under ordinary circumstances, officers do not issue a citation without first issuing a warning and giving the individuals an opportunity to comply.”

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In 2012, responding to complaints about skateboarders damaging public property, the city passed an ordinance banning skateboards, roller-skates, rollerblades and scooters at Hart Plaza.

Despite the ban, neglect has taken the biggest toll on Hart Plaza, where concrete chunks have become dislodged in the park.

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Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.