When is an arrest really an arrest?

Anna Marie Stenberg, 69, climbed the high fence at the delegate entrance at the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday. She was one of four people arrested and later released on federal charges. An attorney argues they, like others, should not be charged.

At least 69 demonstrators in Philadelphia this week have had their hands zip-tied behind their backs by police before being whisked away to an elementary school where they were issued citations for disorderly conduct and released.

So, were they arrested?

Legally, no, police say. Demonstrators weren't charged with anything, thanks to legislation passed by City Council ahead of the Democratic National Convention that decriminalized many nuisance crimes associated with street protests.

Rather than criminal charges, the detained are issued a civil citation akin to a traffic ticket.

To hear demonstrators and their lawyers describe it, the whole process sounds like a strange, hot field trip rather than a tense apprehension.

"It was almost enjoyable, it really was," said Dave Schwenk, 52, a writer from Schwenksville, after his "arrest" Wednesday.

Schwenk was one of a dozen protesters who tied themselves to a railing in the lobby of the Comcast Building in Center City to protest large media companies.

Police gave the group three warnings before carting them to the Spring Garden School at 11th and Melon Streets, where Schwenk sat in an auditorium, near fans set up to keep him and others cool. He eventually was asked to show his ID, handed a $50 citation, and told he was free to go.

"Police were pretty cooperative and talkative with us," Schwenk said. "Some of them were happy we did it. They were complaining about their [cable] bills."

Protesters demonstrating near FDR Park on Monday experienced similar treatment.

"I think some of the people involved were . . . flabbergasted at how quickly they were released," Police Commissioner Richard Ross said Tuesday. "Some of them may have been disappointed."

Civil rights attorneys and protesters taken into custody have commended the process, even if it has felt like an arrest to some.

Mayor Kenney has said his goal is no arrests, a pledge made in light of the 2000 Republican National Convention here, when more than 400 people were taken into custody, many unlawfully.

Now for the legal hairsplitting. Some civil rights attorneys say that while the lack of criminal charges is important, if it looks like an arrest and feels like an arrest, it is an arrest.

"Being under arrest is as much of a presumption as it is a legal reality, so when you do not believe you're free to leave, you're under arrest," said Mike Lee, executive director of the Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity.

Jody Dodd, of the Up Against the Law Legal Collective, a Philadelphia coalition of civil rights attorneys and activists, said it's a "quandary" for the city to say people are not being arrested.

"People were being detained, were put on a vehicle," she said. "Yes, they were not booked, but I think that does leave kind of a legal limbo question about is that an arrest."

Dodd said that while credit is due to police, she thinks kudos should be given to protesters as well.

"People have not done anything remotely that could be accused of being confrontational," she said.

Kai Newkirk, 35, of California, was one of 54 people cited after a demonstration near the AT&T subway station by the Wells Fargo Center on Monday. Newkirk is founder of Democracy Spring, a group fighting big money in politics and demanding the end of superdelegates.

He and other members decided to breach a police line blocking access to the parking lots of the stadium complex. Newkirk told police he would be climbing over a barrier to the lots. Police warned him he would be taken away and cited. Newkirk and others climbed anyway. In some cases, they were assisted over the barriers by police before being cuffed with zip ties and put into vans.

Newkirk wouldn't call it a fun experience.

"My thumb is still numb from how tight they made the zip ties," Newkirk said. "We were all hot and really dehydrated," though he said police did provide water bottles and Gatorade.

Four people were formally arrested Tuesday and now face federal charges for climbing a fence separating demonstrators from the convention site.

An attorney for two of the four argued the city already set the precedent of the painless citation system.

Ross has said federal authorities indicated they might be willing to let the state take over Tuesday's cases, rather than pursue them in federal court.

jterruso@phillynews.com

215-854-5506 @juliaterruso

Staff writers Chris Palmer and Jeremy Roebuck contributed to this article.

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