Thu, Feb 01, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Jury says Seattle violated rights of WTO protesters


A federal jury found the city of Seattle liable for the unlawful arrests of a group of protesters during the WTO meeting in 1999, a ruling that could cost the city significantly.

The jury on Tuesday found the city liable for violating the rights of about 175 protesters against unreasonable search and seizure, but did not find a violation against their free speech rights.

A lawyer for the city argued that the mixed verdict shows the jury was confused by its instructions, and said Seattle will seek to dismiss the case.

Barring that challenge or an immediate appeal, the lawsuit will move to a damages phase.

Seattle has already paid about US$800,000 in more than a dozen WTO lawsuits and claims, and if the damages fall in line with those cases, the city could end up having to pay millions.

"The key point, the lesson learned, is you cannot arrest peaceful protesters here in Seattle or anywhere else in the country," said Kenneth Hankin, a Boeing worker and lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.

The trial stemmed from the arrest of Hankin and the other protesters at a downtown park on Dec. 1, 1999, where they were sitting and singing patriotic anthems.

At the time, 50,000 demonstrators had swarmed Seattle, overwhelming police and closing down parts of the WTO meeting.

The park was in a "no-protest" zone established by the mayor, but officers made no effort to determine whether the protesters had other legitimate reasons to be there before making the arrests, the jury decided.

In a pretrial ruling, US District Judge Marsha Pechman ruled the city had made the arrests without probable cause.

Arrest reports had not been filled out properly, she noted.

The jury's job was to determine whether the city could be held financially responsible.

Lawyers for the protesters had to convince the jurors that the city had a policy targeting the protesters for their anti-WTO views or that higher-ups had approved the illegal arrests.

The city argued that it did have legitimate cause to arrest the protesters, that a shortage of manpower precluded officers from properly filling out arrest reports, and that the plaintiffs presented no evidence the protesters were arrested because of their political views.

"We think it's pretty clear that because the plaintiffs couldn't prove viewpoint discrimination, the city cannot be held liable for false arrest," attorney Ted Buck said.

But a lawyer for the protesters called the decision "a victory for the constitutional rights we all enjoy."

"The city is going to have its hands full trying to prove there was something wrong with this verdict," attorney Mike Withey said.

He said that he did not know what a fair amount would be for the city to pay.

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