Judge Sanctions Seattle for Violating Order Limiting Use of Weapons Against Protesters

Protesters face Seattle Police officers at a protest in May 2020 (Creative Commons)

 By Paul Kiefer

On Thursday, US District Court Judge Richard Jones issued a decision on the penalties Seattle will face for violating a court order he issued last summer to restrict the Seattle Police Department’s use of “less-lethal” weapons at protests. Jones ordered the city to pay $81,997 to cover the attorneys’ fees for Black Lives Matter Seattle King County (BLMSKC), the plaintiffs who sued the city in September 2020 for violating the court order.

In his decision, Judge Jones rejected two of the city’s arguments—that SPD officers did not violate the injunction, and that if they did so, the violations were minor—while also barring the city from introducing “new facts justifying the violations” after Jones found the city in contempt of his order.

The city’s attorneys tried to introduce new evidence to justify their actions during the protests, a request Judge Jones wrote would turn the city’s control over the most relevant evidence—body-worn video and officer testimony— into “both sword and shield. A shield because, during the contempt proceedings, the City would only introduce the evidence that it sees fit and would ask the Plaintiffs and the Court to consider only that limited record.” Allowing BLMSKC, “out of fairness,” to obtain use-of-force reports and body-worn video that would support its point of view would mean “that these proceedings would be endless,” Jones wrote.

But Judge Jones’ ruling was not a resounding victory for BLMSKC and its legal team, which included attorneys from the ACLU of Washington, Seattle University Law School’s Korematsu Center, and the Seattle law firm Perkins Coie.

Though Jones swatted away arguments from the city’s attorneys that he should reverse his ruling that found the city in contempt of a federal court order, he also turned down sanctions BLMSKC proposed as tools to keep SPD in line with the court order in the future: requiring SPD to send BLMSKC use-of-force reports and body-worn video from “any incident in which SPD uses less-lethal weapons against protesters” within five days of the incident.

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Additionally, Jones slashed the city’s requested attorney’s fees by 65 percent, arguing that many of the attorneys’ hours were “excessive, redundant or unnecessary.”

Last June, BLMSKC filed the lawsuit that led Judge Jones to issue a temporary injunction prohibiting SPD officers from using blast balls, pepper spray, tear gas and other crowd control weapons against nonviolent protesters. After Judge Jones issued his initial injunction, BLMSKC returned to his court again in July to argue that SPD continued to use crowd control weapons against peaceful protesters; in lieu of a court hearing, the city’s attorneys and BLMSKC agreed to expand the injunction to explicitly forbid SPD officers from targeting journalists, medics and legal observers, as from using crowd control weapons to move nonviolent crowds.

But after SPD used crowd-control weapons, including flash bangs, against protesters in August and September, BLMSKC sued the city for violating the court order a second time. When Judge Jones ruled in BLMKSC’s favor in December, he pointed to four clear, documented cases in which SPD officers used blast balls and pepper spray in ways that violated his order by “a clear and convincing margin.” In that decision, he added that four well-documented violations were probably not the full extend of SPD’s breach of the court order; however, because the city didn’t provide body-worn video footage from several protests in August and September, he couldn’t confirm any other cases of misconduct.

In December, Jones dismissed the city’s argument that it wasn’t liable for the actions of individual SPD officers. Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes challenged Jones’ ruling in a motion in late December, arguing that the judge held the city to an unreasonable standard for compliance with the court order.  Jones’ new ruling doubles down on his rejection of the city’s arguments, which he called a “makeshift legal standard that the city just fashioned.”

Jones also took issue with the hourly billing rates of some of BLMSKC’s attorneys—particularly the nine attorneys from Perkins Coie. Not only did the rates not reflect the Seattle legal market, he wrote, they were also significantly higher than what Perkins Coie has charged the same court in other cases. Jones also noted that his contempt order was based on four of the 122 incidents the BLMSKC legal team brought to his court as cases of misconduct; that narrow victory, he argued, meant that the legal team should reduce their fees to reflect their limited success.

Lisa Nowlin, a staff attorney for the ACLU (and one of two attorneys whose hourly rates Jones accepted), told PubliCola that even a significantly smaller financial penalty for the city could push SPD to adhere to the court order. “Our hope is that the attorneys’ fees are motivating for the city,” she said. “But we’re disappointed that the court didn’t require the city to require SPD to submit use-of-force reports and body-worn video. Our goal was to make sure that we have the evidence we need to hold the city accountable when the department crowd-control weapons.”