Ending a long-running legal battle, the U.S. Supreme Court refused on Monday to hear a case in which the city of Seattle spent $600,000 to challenge a lawsuit and $1 award to a man who was held at gunpoint by an off-duty police officer.
Attorneys for the man, Andrew Rutherford, hailed the court’s decision.
“This is an important victory for Mr. Rutherford, the local community, and the Fourth Amendment,” trial attorneys Jay Krulewitch and Michael Kolker and appellate lawyers Leonard Feldman and Sara Berry said in a written statement.
The attorneys said they will now seek an estimated $50,000 to cover their additional costs of contesting the city’s petition to the Supreme Court.
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The high court’s decision was a setback for the Seattle Police Department and City Attorney Pete Holmes, who despite the token amount of the award fought the outcome at every legal step.
Holmes not only appealed the verdict, but he also sought to overturn a 1994 California case that Rutherford’s attorneys had heavily relied on in arguing their case. He maintained the expense was justified, calling it a matter of protecting officer safety.
Holmes, in a written statement Monday, said, “It is very difficult to obtain review from the U.S. Supreme Court.” He noted that the city’s position was supported by six states and a U.S. territory, which agreed critical law-enforcement issues were at stake.
A federal jury found in 2011 that Seattle police Officer Jonathan Chin violated Rutherford’s constitutional rights by holding him at gunpoint for too long.
Chin, who was alone, off-duty and in civilian clothes, held Rutherford and two others at gunpoint after chasing the men for several miles in his personal car early on Sept. 9, 2007. Chin said he had seen their car traveling erratically on Capitol Hill and suspected they were drunk.
Chin ordered them to sit in a West Seattle cul-de-sac while he waited for backup.
Rutherford jumped up when the first patrol vehicle raced by, afraid he would be hit.
Several officers tackled and restrained Rutherford, who suffered a head abrasion that required medical evaluation and cost him $3,500 in medical bills, according to documents submitted during the trial.
Rutherford was charged with obstructing an officer, but the case was dismissed. The driver of the car pleaded guilty to reckless driving.
In Rutherford’s civil suit, the jury found Chin’s actions “exceeded the length and scope of the investigatory stop,” violating Rutherford’s constitutional rights.
Jurors rejected Rutherford’s claims of false arrest, excessive force and assault.
The jury also didn’t award him any damages, but Chief U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman awarded Rutherford $1, which allowed his attorneys to eventually collect $90,000 in legal fees.
That amount grew to $174,000 when the city appealed the case twice to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and lost each time.
In addition, Holmes’ office paid $376,722.50 to contract lawyers to defend Chin.
Holmes also hired former U.S. Solicitor General Gregory Garre for $50,000 to draft the Supreme Court petition.
Holmes had hoped the court would review a 1994 ruling out of California, Washington v. Lambert, in which the 9th Circuit limited when police can display a firearm and threaten deadly force during routine investigative stops.
In that case, the 9th Circuit found that “under ordinary circumstances” police cannot display a weapon or use restraints during a routine investigatory stop — when they only suspect a crime might have occurred — without violating the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against illegal seizure.
However, the court recognized a series of “special circumstances” under which “especially intrusive” means can be legally used. They include uncooperative suspects who pose the risk of danger or flight; if police have information that a person is armed; if the stop occurs in proximity to a violent crime; or instances where police have information that a violent crime is about to occur.
The court said a drawn gun “greatly increases the seriousness of the stop,” and that pointing the weapon has to be reserved for instances where the threat is “clear and present.”
The city’s petition to the high court argued that officers should be free to draw a weapon in self-defense without worrying about a checklist of “special circumstances” that could lead to a lawsuit.
In his statement, Holmes said the trial jury awarded no damages for police actions in response to reckless and drunken driving, which he called a “serious and growing” public-safety problem.
He said the law-enforcement issues — proper application of qualified immunity and the ability of police to protect themselves in dangerous encounters — remain “critically important” to the city and many 9th Circuit jurisdictions that joined the petition, including the states of Washington, Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana and Oregon, and the territory of Guam.
Rutherford’s attorneys contended the city’s position could broaden police powers and lead to more violent encounters with police.
In their statement Monday, his attorneys said the jury and district court correctly concluded Chin had violated Rutherford’s Fourth Amendment rights “by detaining him at gunpoint without justification in a routine traffic stop.”
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this story.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org