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Being manhandled by police, falsely arrested and subjected to undercover surveillance were one thing. But when David Charney was thrown in jail for eight days awaiting bail on a charge of "obstructing police," it pushed him over the edge.

Mr. Charney, an advocate for homeless youth, was determined to make the Waterloo Regional Police accountable for what he saw as the latest chapter in a long-running campaign of harassment against social activists.

A third-year law student at York University's Osgoode Hall Law School, Mr. Charney fought back with the tool he knew best: the law. He launched a $10,000 lawsuit against the Waterloo force in small claims court. On the eve of his trial in June -- legal arguments finely honed and 20 witnesses lined up to testify -- Mr. Charney, 34, rolled up his sleeves to play hardball with police lawyers.

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"They offered me $3,000," he says. "I laughed at that. I said, basically, 'It's $9,000 or nothing.' "

The police ponied up. It was a capitulation that both the Waterloo and other local police forces will soon come to rue, since it convinced Mr. Charney and a handful of fellow law students that they had stumbled across an ideal vehicle to keep police misconduct in check. The Police Accountability Small Claims Collective was born.

The group wasted no time distributing posters ("Hold the police accountable. Have your day in court. Get some justice. We can represent you for FREE") and approaching community groups in Toronto and Kitchener.

Four months later, they have filed five formal statements of claim -- four against Waterloo Regional Police and one against Toronto police -- for alleged assault, false arrest or negligent investigation. Fourteen more lawsuits are in the works.

"More are coming in every week," Mr. Charney says. "They may involve someone who was just walking along and got beaten or someone who is pepper-sprayed at a protest.

"It's a new strategy for police accountability. Slowly, word is spreading about us. These kind of false arrests and illegal searches go on every day, so there won't be any shortage for our group. We'll be able to pick the best and strongest cases."

The advantages of a small-claims lawsuit are significant. Cases are heard much faster and rules are less formal than for a lawsuit heard in a superior court. In addition, a judge can't require an unsuccessful plaintiff to pay more than $1,500 in legal costs.

"Lawyers are not going to take these cases to win just a few thousand dollars," Mr. Charney added. He says it leaves the field wide open to budding law students.

Mr. Charney's original lawsuit listed a series of incidents involving six different Waterloo police officers. They stemmed from incidents at a Kitchener centre known as The Spot, which caters to addicted and homeless youths. "We had lots of success mobilizing youth, monitoring the police and getting people to stick up for their friends," Mr. Charney says.

Volunteer organizers such as Mr. Charney came under close police scrutiny after they began compiling harassment complaints against individual officers. Undercover police officers tried to infiltrate the centre.

Mr. Charney alleged that he was regularly subjected to abusive treatment, spontaneous questioning in the streets and homophobic comments.

At one point, he was also charged with defamatory libel for distributing a poster that depicted a particular officer and accused him of brutality. According to his statement of claim, the police falsely informed the Crown on that case that Mr. Charney had a history of assaulting police and was linked to an "extremist group."

In another incident detailed in his statement of claim, Mr. Charney said that while putting up posters in Kitchener, he was attacked and arrested by an officer. "This officer smashed my head on the sidewalk and made sexual comments about me while I was being strip-searched," he alleged.

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Mr. Charney sums it up this way: "It has been a long-running battle."

David Dyer, a lawyer for the Waterloo Regional Police Services Board, declined to comment on the lawsuits or the allegations in them.

The group project comes at a pivotal juncture in a developing area of law. With judges and juries no longer willing to automatically side with police as they once did, civil litigation targeting police has picked up considerably in the past few years. Veteran Toronto lawyers such as Sean Dewart, Julian Falconer, Louis Sokolov and Barry Swadron have made police litigation a specialty.

Mr. Sokolov praised the law students' approach and noted that one of the trademarks of police misconduct is that victims "are overwhelmingly poor and marginalized." He says their project jells nicely with a case he will be arguing in the Supreme Court of Canada next month, on behalf of a Hamilton man who was falsely arrested for a series of robberies.

If the appeal is successful, Mr. Sokolov says, civilians will be able to more easily prove that botched police investigations were negligent without actually having to show that there was malicious intent.

While their small-claims project has played havoc with the group's studies at law school, "it's a priority, I guess," Mr. Charney says. "And we do see value in this as part of our legal education. You get to apply what you learn in class in a very real way."

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He says the collective is actively searching for recruits at Osgoode Hall and the University of Toronto's law school in order to ensure that it lives on after the current members are called to the bar and disperse.

"This is definitely the kind of work I want to continue doing," Mr. Charney says.

"The more this group is active and has a presence, the more other students are going to come out of law school with an interest in this kind of work. Hopefully, we can play a role in making police more accountable."

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