A federal jury has ruled that the city of Seattle is liable for the unlawful arrests of roughly 200 protesters during the second day of...
A federal jury has ruled that the city of Seattle is liable for the unlawful arrests of roughly 200 protesters during the second day of the World Trade Organization meetings in 1999.
However, the jury also determined that the arrests did not violate the protesters’ free-speech rights because they were not made as a result of a city policy aimed at squelching anti-WTO viewpoints.
By finding the city liable for the illegal arrests, the jury cleared the way for potential financial damages to be assessed against the city on behalf of the protesters. A separate trial will be required to determine financial damages.
U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman had previously ruled that the arrests of roughly 200 people at Westlake Park between 6 a.m. and noon on Dec. 1, 1999, were made without probable cause because the police did not try to find out if each individual who was arrested was in violation of a city order barring protesters from the area.
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Jurors were asked to determine whether the city violated protesters’ First Amendment rights to free speech and their Fourth Amendment rights protecting them from unlawful search and seizure.
The city has already paid out more than $800,000 to settle multiple claims involving police misconduct during the WTO protests.
The mixed verdict, which followed three days of jury deliberations in U.S. District Court in Seattle, virtually assures that the seven-year legal battle over the Seattle Police Department’s conduct during the 1999 WTO meetings will continue for months and possibly years to come.
Ted Buck, an attorney for the city, said he plans to ask the court to vacate the jury’s decision because the two verdicts were inconsistent. Buck said the jurors were confused by the court’s instructions.
“We think it’s pretty clear that because the plaintiffs couldn’t prove viewpoint discrimination, the city cannot be held liable for false arrest,” Buck said.
If Pechman upholds the jury’s decision, Buck said the city will likely appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Michael Withey, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, praised the outcome.
“We feel the principles we’ve been fighting for for the last seven years have been vindicated,” Withey said. “Even though we didn’t win on all our claims, we’re still very gratified by the court’s rulings and by the jury verdict.”
Kenneth Hankin, a Boeing engineer who was one of the lead plaintiffs, also was pleased with the verdict. “The key point is a lesson learned, that you cannot just arrest peaceful protesters here in Seattle, or anywhere else in the country,” Hankin said.
The protesters filed a class-action lawsuit against the city on behalf of anyone detained during mass arrests at Westlake Park between 6 a.m. and noon on Dec. 1, 1999. Eight people arrested that day served as lead plaintiffs.
They contended that the city violated their First Amendment right to free speech by arresting them simply because they were protesting the WTO meetings. They also claimed the arrests violated their Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.
The arrests came amid the chaos that erupted beginning on Nov. 30, 1999, as some 50,000 people arrived in Seattle to protest the WTO’s first ministerial meeting in the U.S. The talks collapsed after five days of anti-globalization riots that hurt the city’s image and caused $3 million in damage.
Hoping to avoid a second day of unrest, then-Mayor Paul Schell issued an emergency order on Dec. 1 that declared parts of downtown Seattle off-limits to all but a handful of people. Among the exempt groups: WTO delegates and workers; residents of the area; business owners and employees; and safety personnel.
While Judge Pechman had previously ruled the arrests were unlawful, attorneys for the city argued during trial that the scores of people arrested at Westlake Park were detained because of their behavior, not because of their viewpoints.
However, during a news conference at 7 a.m. on Dec. 1, 1999, Assistant Police Chief Ed Joiner said “anyone that goes into that area to protest will be arrested immediately,” which became a key point during the trial. Withey, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney, played a clip of Joiner’s remarks several times for jurors and insisted it was proof that the city’s mission was to squelch anti-WTO viewpoints.
Former Police Chief Norm Stamper testified that he knew of and endorsed Joiner’s policy that the city would arrest protesters in the off-limits area on Dec. 1. Withey said that testimony was key to Tuesday’s outcome.
“The jury found that the city pursued a policy to arrest protesters,” Withey said. “So the false-arrest claim is a very important claim to win.”
In his 2005 book, “Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing,” Stamper accepted responsibility for the Seattle Police Department’s poor preparation for the WTO protests.
Assistant Police Chief Jim Pugel, who was a captain at the time of the WTO meetings and ordered the mass arrests, praised the jury’s verdict.
“I think it’s a very good verdict for the people of Seattle, for those who want to practice free speech in the city of Seattle,” said Pugel, who stressed the fact that the city was not found guilty of free-speech violations.
Reached by phone at his winter home in Palm Springs, Calif., former Mayor Schell said he was happy jurors found the city did not violate the free-speech rights of protesters. But Schell said he was not familiar enough with the lawsuit to understand why they would conclude protesters’ Fourth Amendment rights had been violated.
As he has in the past, Schell generally defended the job police did under chaotic circumstances. “I thought the police, under incredible stress, did a terrific job,” he said. “It was a volatile circumstance that even looking back today I don’t know what we could have done different — other than more training for the suburban police we brought in.”
Public unhappiness with the WTO riots helped destroy Schell’s bid for a second term in 2001. He was the first incumbent Seattle mayor since 1936 to lose in the primary.
Seattle City Council President Nick Licata said the city could have done a better job handling the protests.
“Too often we tend to want quick and firm decisions, but we often don’t take into account the judicial branch,” he said. “The courts have to keep reminding elected officials that there are constitutional rights we cannot ignore. It’s best in the long run to take a deep breath and have a more measured response.”
David Bowermaster: 206-464-2724 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Seattle Times staff reporters Jim Brunner and Susan Gilmore contributed to this report.