In a rare ruling from the bench, a federal judge Wednesday threw out a high-profile civil-rights lawsuit filed against an off-duty Seattle police officer who pulled a gun and threatened a man after
a parking dispute.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly chastised Seattle Police Detective Donald Waters for not walking away from a June 2009 confrontation with then-19-year-old Evan Sargent, who had blocked a West Seattle alley with his truck while picking up laundry from his mother’s business.
But Zilly also said that Sargent “escalated” the situation when he brandished a baseball bat at Waters, who was trying to find parking to meet a friend for dinner nearby.
Once the bat came out and threatening gestures made, the confrontation became an assault and Waters, belligerent or not, had the right to arrest Sargent, at gunpoint if necessary, Zilly said.
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Zilly dismissed the case after more than an hour of arguments on competing motions to dismiss the case by the City Attorney’s Office — representing the SPD and Waters — and Sargent and his attorneys.
Sargent had parked his grandfather’s truck, emergency lights flashing, in an alleyway near a busy West Seattle intersection to pick up a load of laundry for his mother’s business. While he was out of the truck, Waters, who was off-duty and wearing shorts and civilian clothes, turned into the alley and intended to cut through the block to avoid traffic. His route, however, was blocked by the parked truck.
Waters was reportedly agitated and angry when Sargent returned to the vehicle. According to the lawsuit, he confronted Sargent and allegedly smashed the truck’s side mirror with his fist.
Sargent, reportedly not knowing Waters was a police officer, tried to get out of the truck but fell. According to his lawyers and the lawsuit, witnesses said he grabbed a baseball bat that was in the back seat. Sargent said he held the bat in front of him to keep Waters at a distance.
Waters responded by returning to his car to retrieve a handgun, which he pointed at Sargent.
Sargent was arrested and booked into the King County Jail for investigation of aggravated assault on a police officer with a weapon. But he was never charged.
During Wednesday’s arguments, Zilly honed in on when Waters identified himself as a police officer, and whether his decision to use force — first by trying to stop Sargent from leaving the scene, and then by pointing a gun at him — were lawful intrusions into Sargent’s Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.
In both instances, Zilly said Waters acted legally, if not appropriately.
“These events never should have happened,” Zilly said in a prelude to his ruling.
Sargent has said he retrieved a bat from his car because he was afraid of the 47-year-old Waters. That bat constituted a potentially deadly weapon, Zilly said, and Waters was rightly apprehensive that he could be hurt.
The judge said the officer was justified in retrieving a handgun and his badge from his car and arresting Sargent.
Sargent, who was present in the courtroom, declined to comment on Zilly’s ruling. His attorney, Patrick Preston, said he was “really surprised” by the ruling and is weighing options for a possible appeal.
Waters sat in the back of the courtroom and left after the ruling without comment. Kimberly Mills, a spokeswoman for the City Attorney’s Office, said they were “very pleased” with Zilly’s ruling.
The Sargent case has been among a handful of high-profile civil-rights lawsuits that have been highlighted by SPD critics as exemplifying the sorts of use-of-force and escalation issues that drove a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation into the department.
That investigation led to a settlement agreement and a federal court monitor who is overseeing SPD reforms.
The Sargent case was particularly noteworthy because frustrations by his attorneys over obtaining documents and files led to a 2011 letter by two former U.S. attorneys — Mike McKay and his brother, John McKay — to call for a full DOJ investigation into the SPD.
Zilly also threw out claims of excessive use of force and said an allegation that the SPD’s policies contributed to a civil-rights violation was moot, because no violation occurred.
Mike Carter: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-3706
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.