A King County judge ordered the Seattle Police Department on Friday to pay $129,000 in legal costs to a 72-year-old man who was improperly denied public records relating to an excessive-force complaint he brought against officers.
A King County judge on Friday ordered the Seattle Police Department to pay $129,000 in legal costs to a 72-year-old man who was improperly denied public records relating to an excessive-force complaint he brought against officers.
The department also faces up to $8,500 in additional legal fees generated by its request for a court hearing that preceded the judge’s ruling, during which it fiercely objected to the costs.
The department already had been ordered in September to pay nearly $20,000 to Seattle antiques dealer Turner Helton for failing to provide him records of an internal investigation that cleared two officers of using excessive force during a confrontation with him.
In all, the department now stands to pay more than $150,000 over its refusal to turn over the records.
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Helton’s attorney, Patrick Preston, excoriated the Police Department and city attorneys for requesting Friday’s court hearing, calling it the latest example of the department throwing up the “path of greatest resistance” in the case.
“It’s costing everyone,” Preston told Superior Court Judge Richard Eadie.
Helton’s case follows years of clashes in which the department has often resisted providing public records to citizens, lawyers and reporters, in part, because of agreements with the Seattle police union.
The department has recently shifted ground, agreeing to release far more internal-investigation records after a landmark state Supreme Court ruling in August that required greater public access to police records.
In Helton’s case, he alleged that officers used excessive force after they were dispatched to his Sodo District business in November 2009 in response to a report from his health insurer that he might be suicidal.
Helton had called his insurer to complain about its refusal to pay for a prescription and, according to Preston, made an offhand remark that if he wasn’t given the drug, he “might as well die now.”
Helton maintains that officers roughed him up while subduing him, then called a private ambulance to take him to Harborview Medical Center for a psychiatric examination. Staff there found no reason to detain him, according to court records.
A police report said Helton, when contacted, didn’t respond to commands to calm down and made furtive movements.
No criminal charges were brought against Helton, who filed a complaint with the department over the officers’ conduct.
After being informed by the department that no misconduct had been found, he asked last year for records related to the internal inquiry. The department refused to release most of the file, saying disclosure would violate officers’ privacy and hinder effective law enforcement.
Helton sued to get the records in June. City attorneys initially contested the suit but gave Helton the records in August, days after the state Supreme Court ruling.
Eadie then awarded Helton the penalty of nearly $20,000, although he imposed a $45-per-day fine rather than the maximum $100 per day sought by Helton.
Eadie found the department gave short shrift to the request, but that it had not acted in bad faith.
The department continued to fight Helton over attorney fees, asking Eadie to cut Helton’s request for nearly $130,000 in fees and costs to $56,149.20.
Assistant City Attorney Sumeer Singla spent about 1 ½ hours in court Friday attacking the request, blaming what he labeled the questionable practice of “block billing” for excessive, duplicative and vague fees.
Preston, Helton’s attorney, relied on the findings of an expert retained by his law firm to analyze the fees. Lawyer Shelley Hall found the billing rates of Preston and the other main attorney, $310 and $300 per hour respectively, were reasonable under prevailing rates, as was the $505 per hour charged by Mike McKay, a former U.S. attorney in Seattle, who served a limited management role in the case.
Eadie sided with Preston, shaving only $700 from the billings after Preston conceded that some incidental work, including interviews with reporters for The Seattle Times and KOMO-TV, should not have been included.
Eadie told Preston he could submit his fees and costs for his work preparing for the hearing and his time in court. Preston said after the hearing that he expected to submit about $8,500 in costs.
The judge rejected the bulk of the Police Department’s arguments, noting that citizens wrongly denied public records had a right to collect reasonable attorneys fees.
Preston said he anticipates he will now file a claim against the city over the force used on Helton.
The City Attorney’s Office, meanwhile, said it is considering whether to appeal the attorney-fee ruling, noting the costs of doing that will be reviewed.
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this story.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org