Humboldt County and Eureka law enforcement officers were found liable today of using excessive force when they swabbed pepper spray on the eyes of nonviolent logging protesters during a 1997 protest.
SAN FRANCISCO — Humboldt County and Eureka law enforcement officers were found liable today of using excessive force when they swabbed pepper spray on the eyes of nonviolent logging protesters during a 1997 protest.
The jury only awarded the eight plaintiffs $1 each in the case. The was the third trial after the first two ended in deadlocked juries in 1998 and 2004.
The plaintiffs laughed and hugged in the courthouse hallways after the verdicts were read and applauded when jurors left their chambers.
“They did the right thing,” said plaintiff Terri “Compost” Slanetz, a 42-year-old naturalist from Oakland. “We’ve been trying all along to get a statement that this was illegal. It’s a positive step toward people treating each other decently.”
The protesters claim their civil rights were violated when Humboldt County sheriff’s deputies and Eureka police officers swabbed pepper spray directly in their eyes during the 1997 protest.
The protesters argued the pepper spray was used to illegally punish and intimidate them for chaining themselves together and making it difficult for authorities to arrest them.
Attorneys said the verdict would prevent the use of pepper spray on nonviolent protesters, the motive for sticking with the case when it seemed futile.
“The plaintiffs were never in it for the money they were in it for the principle,” attorney Tony Serra said. “And we won this on principle. This will deter the use of pepper spray on protesters.”
Plaintiffs attorney Dennis Cunningham said he thought the decision, which came after a roughly two-week trial, was tough for the jurors but called the verdict “a step forward.”
“One is forced to a conclusion that this is a compromise,” he said. “It’s an imperfect verdict in an imperfect world.”
The officers and their attorneys left the courthouse after the verdict without commenting.
Despite the low damage amount, one of the plaintiffs said she was still pleased with the precedent.
“I don’t even care about the money,” said Maya Portugal, 23, who now lives in Northern Ireland and works in a coffee shop. “This is a victory for us. If this is going to stop them from doing this to nonviolent people then it was worth it.”
Portugal was just 16 when she was swabbed with the pepper spray.
Police have said they swabbed the protesters to get them to unlock their shackles so they could be removed from private property.
The protests took place in the fall of 1997, one at then-Rep. Frank Riggs’ Eureka office, and another at the Scotia headquarters of the Pacific Lumber Co.
Juror Athene Aquino, a 35-year-old Citibank employee, said she was convinced the force was excessive by watching a video showing the deputies swapping pepper spray in the protesters’ eyes.
When she viewed the tape, Aquino said she “started crying. It was just very emotional.”