Philly Cops Target Young Activists

The cops came, searched and left a mess for puzzled homeowner

Four young residents of a North Philadelphia house who circulated petitions questioning police-surveillance cameras were rousted from their home Friday and detained 12 hours without charges while police searched their house.

Daniel Moffat, 28, a co-owner of the house, said police had no warrant when they entered. The house was examined by officials from several government agencies and then shuttered by the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections.

"This leaves me homeless, without access to things I need. My whole life is disrupted," Moffat said yesterday.

The raid on the property on Ridge Avenue near Parrish Street was led by 9th District Police Capt. Dennis Wilson, who was quoted in an online story by the City Paper as saying of the residents: "They're a hate group. We're trying to drum up charges against them, but unfortunately we'll probably have to let them go."

Reached yesterday by the Daily News, Wilson said he was unable to comment.

Police spokesman Lt. Frank Vanore said police had gone to the property because a nearby surveillance camera had been spray-painted and rendered inoperable, and interviews with neighbors led police to suspect that "people in this house were possibly involved."

Vanore said that when Moffat and others declined to identify themselves and cooperate, police entered the property because "they had probable cause to believe there was trespassing or even burglarizing."

Once inside, Vanore said, police saw things that prompted them to obtain a search warrant, such as protest literature, anti-police graffiti on walls, and the construction of what police thought might be a bunker on the roof.

Before the day ended, the property also was visited by members of the state police, the Fire Marshal's Office, and the Philadelphia Housing Authority. Details of the story are in dispute.

Viewed from the sidewalk, the property doesn't look inhabited. The first floor is a decrepit storefront covered by a metal gate. The second-floor windows are covered with plywood.

But Moffat said that since he and Robert Gilbert bought the place four years ago, they've repaired the roof and worked to restore the interior. Moffat said he and three friends who live there are active in the Francisville community, distributing free food at times and helping with a community garden. Co-owner Gilbert does not live there.

Moffat grew up in Southern California and attended San Francisco State University before moving to Philadelphia in 2003.

He said he isn't a member of any political group, but he said he and others in the house recently circulated petitions that raised questions about the appearance of surveillance cameras in the neighborhood and about the beating of three suspects by police that was seen on a TV video.

Moffat said police did not mention damage to any surveillance camera when they arrived Friday morning. He said Wilson had told him police had received a complaint that the residents of the house were living there illegally.

Moffat said he had been intimidated by the presence of the officers and told Wilson, falsely, that he didn't own the property, but could call the owner. He said he asked Wilson if he had a warrant, and none was produced.

Moffat said he was handcuffed and placed in a patrol car while police entered the building, began a search and arrested the other three residents. Moffat said once the search began and L&I officials were called, he told Wilson that he owned the property and could show him a deed inside, but that Wilson wasn't interested. He asked what they were accused of.

"You're not being charged, you're being investigated," he said Wilson told him. At another point Wilson said, "call it a kidnapping."

Then after about two hours, Moffat said, he was taken to jail.

"We're going to do you a favor," Moffat said Wilson told him. "It's a very hot day, and we're going to bring you down the district and put you in a cell so you don't overheat."

Moffat and his housemates weren't released until after midnight. but Moffat said he was told the house was sealed, and they could only come in the next day with a police escort to retrieve personal belongings.

"When I got to my room, it had been thoroughly searched," Moffat said. "All my photographs on the floor, all my filing cabinets emptied. It was a wreck. Some of the stuff from my room was in other rooms."

Moffat said he was given a property receipt indicating his laptop computer is now in the possession of the State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Intelligence Division.

State Police spokeswoman Cpl. Linette Quinn said she didn't know anything about the raid or whether state police had the computer.

"You have to talk to Philadelphia police," she said.

Philadelphia police spokesman Vanore said he didn't know why the state police were brought in, but said there may have been protest literature involving the issue of police-surveillance cameras in other states.

Vanore said when police entered the property, they saw anti-police graffiti on walls, including the phrase, "kill the pigs." He said there was spray paint, including some that matched the color spayed on the police surveillance video.

And he said the structure on the roof "was similar to what we saw on Osage Avenue," referring to the rooftop fortification built by the radical group MOVE before the 1985 confrontation that killed 11 people.

The bunker charge provoked a chuckle from Moffat.

"It's a greenhouse," he said.

Moffat said the anti-police graffiti was on the wall of an adjacent building accessible from his roof, he said, and it was there when they moved in.

Moffat said they had a box with some spray paint, since they'd been doing renovations. But he adamantly denied having anything to do with spraying the surveillance camera.

Kirk Dorn of the Philadelphia Housing Authority said the city called his agency to seal up the property because they'd determined it was unfit for human habitation. It didn't have proper running water and had holes in walls and floors.

Moffat acknowledged that he didn't have proper permits for renovations he was doing, but insisted that the place had running water and flushing toilets, and that any holes in floors were "tiny, where vents had been."

Vanore said police will conduct a forensic examination of the items taken from the property to see if any charges are warranted.

Moffat and co-owner Gilbert said they're exploring their legal options. Moffat is now staying with friends.