Case of Wrongly Arrested WTO Protesters Settled for $1 million

April 4, 2007

Seattle’s insurance company has agreed to pay $1 million to settle claims that about 175 people were wrongly arrested during a peaceful WTO protest in 1999.

The case went to trial in January, and a federal jury found Seattle liable for violating the protesters’ constitutional rights by arresting them without probable cause. The settlement avoids a damages phase to determine how much the city owed, and it resolves the last outstanding claims against the city from the World Trade Organization protests.

“The police can respect the constitutional rights of protesters and at the same time protect the public safety,” Mike Withey, lead attorney for the protesters, said.

As part of the settlement, which must be approved by U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman, the city will seal the arrest records and ask any other law enforcement agencies that received copies to expunge them, Withey said. Each protester will be eligible to receive $3,000 to $10,000, and some of the settlement will be used to pay legal fees.

The case was brought by the Washington, D.C.-based public interest law firm Public Justice.

City Attorney Tom Carr called the settlement “extremely reasonable.” A statement from his office said 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals precedent “holds that individualized probable cause is not required in these civil disturbance/mass arrest circumstances, and the city strongly believes it would have prevailed in an appeal …. However, the city’s insurance company decided to settle the case rather than to continue to fund the appellate litigation.”

The insurance company is National Union, said Carr’s assistant, Ruth Bowman. The company did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

The trial stemmed from the mass arrest of protesters at a downtown park Dec. 1, 1999, where they were sitting and singing patriotic anthems. That week, 50,000 demonstrators had swarmed Seattle, overwhelming police and closing down parts of the World Trade Organization meeting.

The park was in a “no-protest” zone established by the mayor, but officers did not have probable cause to arrest the protesters, Pechman ruled. She found that the officers made no effort to determine whether the protesters had legitimate reasons to be in the zone, such as shopping or attending WTO meetings as delegates, or to keep proper arrest records.

As part of the settlement, the city agreed to issue copies of Pechman’s rulings in the case to police cadets and line officers — training that should help prevent unlawful mass arrests in the future, Withey said.

Ken Hankin, a Boeing worker who was arrested that day, said he was pleased the settlement had been reached, but added that the prospect of receiving a few thousand dollars seemed paltry compared to the violation of his rights. He spent three days in police custody and wasn’t released until the WTO meetings had ended.

“I lost my right to protest the WTO,” he said. “That’s something I feel very upset about.”

Seattle previously paid about $800,000 in more than a dozen WTO lawsuits and claims.

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