A damage award of $1, which a federal judge is considering in a case where a jury found an off-duty Seattle police officer violated the rights of a man he held at gunpoint, could cost the city big money in attorney's fees.
A damage award of $1, which a federal judge is considering in a case where a jury found an off-duty Seattle police officer violated the rights of a man he held at gunpoint, could cost the city big money in attorney’s fees.
U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman, in a rare move, announced she was reopening the damages portion of Andrew Rutherford’s civil-rights lawsuit even though a six-member jury Tuesday determined that, while Rutherford’s rights were violated in the 2007 incident, he should get nothing. In this type of case, the jury’s ruling meant Rutherford could not ask the city to pay his legal fees despite a verdict in his favor.
In her order, posted late Wednesday, Pechman cited a jury instruction that says, in part, “If you find for the plaintiff … you must award nominal damages. Nominal damages may not exceed one dollar.”
An award, if even $1, however, opens the door for Rutherford to ask the city to pay for his lawyers.
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Pechman asked both sides for briefs on the issue within the week.
Jay Krulewitch, Rutherford’s lawyer, declined to comment on the judge’s order. Earlier, he had said he was pleased with the verdict but “disappointed that there were no damages awarded.”
Krulewitch would not discuss his fees in the case, which was filed in 2009, except to say they are “significant.”
Attorneys for the city and officer involved could not be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon. Before the judge entered her order, however, police attorney Ted Buck had called the verdict “strange.”
The case arose from a 2007 incident in which rookie police Officer Jonathan Chin, who was off-duty, in plain clothes and driving his personal car, said he was cut off in traffic on Capitol Hill by a black Jeep that ran a red light. Dialing 911, Chin followed the car to a dead-end street in West Seattle, where he confronted three men who were standing outside of it. Rutherford had been a passenger in the car.
Alone and outnumbered, Chin drew a handgun and ordered the men to sit in the street while waiting for “fast backup,” a call he had put out for immediate help.
Rutherford claimed he and his two friends were ordered to sit in the dark street while other officers sped to the scene. Rutherford alleged a cruiser roared toward him, and out of fear he jumped up to move out of the way. When that happened, he claimed, Chin and officers Joshua Rurey and Jason McKissack — the driver of the patrol car — tackled him.
He suffered facial and head injuries that left him with more than $3,500 in medical bills, according to court pleadings.
The jury did not award him damages for those injuries and found that the officers had not used excessive force nor unlawfully arrested Rutherford.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 1968 ruling Terry v. Ohio, held that police officers may briefly detain someone they reasonably suspect is involved in criminal activity in what is commonly referred to as a “Terry stop.” That detention, however, must be limited in length and scope to balance the citizen’s Fourth Amendment rights prohibiting illegal search and seizure with public- and officer-safety concerns.
The jury found that Rutherford’s detention exceeded the limits set by Terry.
Buck said the defense team was contacted by one juror, who said the panel was concerned that Chin chose to confront the three men alone rather than wait for backup, which he knew was on the way.
The department had similar concerns. Chin was counseled by his supervisor after the director of the department’s Office of Professional Accountability wrote that she had concerns over the “legal justification Officer Chin had to require all three occupants to sit down on the ground detaining them.”
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or firstname.lastname@example.org