15 in Ga. Sue AT&T Over Arrests


Residents of two Marietta, Ga., apartment buildings were shocked when police and an investigator for AT&T Broadband showed up to search their apartments around midnight last May.

They were even more stunned when those searches led to the arrest of 15 residents, accused of cable theft — even though some suspects were not legal residents of the dwellings.

Those arrested then became furious when the first trial resulted in an acquittal after just 16 minutes of jury deliberation. The district attorney then dropped the other 14 cases.

On Dec. 14, the 15 arrestees filed a $50 million malicious prosecution lawsuit against the cable operator in Fulton County State Court.

"Three of those arrested were DBS customers," said Henry D. Fellows Jr., attorney for one of the plaintiffs. He said 14 of those arrested were African-American and another suspect was Hispanic, and indicated he would raise the issue of race at the trial.

AT&T Broadband had no comment on the suit, said vice president of communications Andrew Johnson.

AT&T Broadband, which acquired the Atlanta cluster from MediaOne Group Inc., has set about trying to stem rampant local cable theft. The operation serves approximately 1 million homes; an AT&T audit has estimated about 200,000 households employ illegal hookups. The MSO's audit is about halfway finished.

Last spring, according to the plaintiffs, auditors hit two apartment complexes: Natchez Trace and Hidden Glen.

A plain-clothes Marietta police officer, accompanied by an AT&T Broadband security worker, knocked on apartment doors late one night, asking whether residents had cable and requesting entry to verify the status of their televisions.

The AT&T Broadband employee recorded the encounters on digital video. Fellows supplied copies of the videotapes to reporters and included them in the Dec. 14 filing.

The investigators are seen opening a four-apartment connection vault outside the building and verifying hookups to all four units. The tape also shows the pair questioning minors without their parents present.

The first person to go to trial, Carmen Robinson Gonzales, provided proof that she paid for cable installation last March. She had moved to the complex in February and called AT&T Broadband to order an installation. The company missed the appointment, but offered to waive a fee if the resident would reschedule. She was installed on March 8 and has a cancelled check for $40.45 to show she paid her first month's bill.

AT&T apparently failed to enter her address in their billing computer, as she received no service bills in the mail, according to the suit. She tried repeatedly to call about her bill and could never get through, the lawsuit contends.

In early May, authorities came to her house to question her about an illegal connection and arrested her days later, leaving her underage son unsupervised. She was acquitted at a September trial.

Fellows said residents, including Gonzales, tried to clarify their billing status after the investigators' first visit, but were arrested anyway. According to the suit, one resident had cable installed during this period and the work order — included in the suit — contains a note from an AT&T Broadband worker which noted that the resident couldn't have stolen the signal, because he had to run wire into the home to make a connection.