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1999 WTO Protesters Win Million Dollar Suit In Seattle

by David Roknich (roknich (at)
Justice has prevailed for those who were illegally and violently arrested during the landmark protests against the WTO in Seattle. The court ruling will effect a permanent change in the training and actions of the Seattle police. FULL STORY


In a landmark settlement reached by Public Justice on behalf of scores of people arrested in 1999 while peacefully protesting the World Trade Organization, the City of Seattle has agreed to seal and expunge the records of what a jury earlier determined to be their
unconstitutional arrests by Seattle police.

In addition, the settlement mandates that the City improve police training in order to prevent unconstitutional mass arrests in the future. Finally, the City will pay $1 million to compensate the protesters for the violation of their constitutional rights and the costs of bringing the lawsuit.

Following an 11-day trial in January, a civil court jury found the City liable for violating the
protesters’ Fourth Amendment rights. The verdict in Hankin v. City of Seattle and settlement followed seven years of litigation and determined work by the Public Justice legal team.

“It’s a shame when justice is delayed any length of time, especially seven years,” said lead plaintiff Kenneth Hankin, a Boeing fuel systems engineer. “The verdict and this settlement not only vindicate the rights of the people who peacefully and lawfully protested in 1999, but will help ensure that future dissent is treated as intended in a free society.”

The class action lawsuit, filed in 2000, arose from the events of December 1, 1999, when police corralled and arrested approximately 175 people who were peacefully protesting the WTO in downtown Seattle’s Westlake Park. The City had invited and encouraged the WTO to hold its ministerial conference in Seattle. By the time the conference began in late November, tens of thousands of individuals and organizations with a range of concerns from globalization and labor to endangered species and human rights converged on the city to protest WTO policies.

After one day of widespread but largely peaceful protest, Seattle’s mayor declared a swath of the downtown business core off-limits to all but certain citizens in what many observers saw as an exaggerated response to isolated disturbances by some individuals. Although the order did not specifically prohibit protests within the area, city officials and Seattle police called it a “no protest zone.” Hundreds of peaceful protesters were then arrested.

All charges against those arrested in the “zone” were later dropped, but not before many of the demonstrators were held in jail for up to four days — until the WTO conference had ended. No police officers were ever reprimanded or disciplined by the City.

Based largely on testimony by Seattle Police Department leaders, Public Justice co-lead trial counsel Michael Withey argued that the arrests adhered to City policy or, at minimum, had been approved by policymakers within the department. The jury agreed, finding that the City was responsible for the unconstitutional arrests. In addition to Withey, the plaintiffs were represented at trial by Public Justice co-lead trial counsel Tyler Weaver of Seattle; Seattle attorney Fred Diamondstone; and attorney Leslie Bailey, the Brayton-Baron Fellow at Public Justice.

After the jury verdict, Seattle faced further litigation on the damages owed to the peaceful
protesters it unconstitutionally arrested. To avoid the trials, the City agreed to settle the case.

“This settlement brings to a close an important chapter in the history of this City,” said Withey. “The lesson to draw is that the full constitutional rights of citizens can be guaranteed at the same time public safety is secured. The court, the jury and now the City of Seattle have validated this vital principle. We are proud to hold the city accountable and to contribute to this important victory.”

Weaver said he was pleased that the Westlake Park demonstrators would be compensated, but that the full outcome of the case has a much more significant meaning.

“Most importantly, the jury’s verdict in this case is a sign that our Constitution is alive and well,”Weaver said. “I am hopeful that this case will send a message not only to the City of Seattle but to cities around the country that mass arrests of peaceful, law-abiding protesters will not and cannot be tolerated.”

Diamondstone noted that the settlement serves “an important lesson for police departments around the country that have looked to Seattle’s WTO experience” when large numbers of protesters gather in other large cities. “The proper lesson is to avoid repetition of the fiasco in Seattle by allowing peaceful protesters to gather, as guaranteed by the Constitution,” Diamondstone said.

Pursuant to the settlement agreement, which is subject to court approval, the City of Seattle has agreed not only to seal its own records of the arrests, but also to formally request that other agencies expunge any records they may have received or maintained regarding the December 1, 1999 arrests. The City will also notify the agencies that the Westlake class members were never tried or convicted of any offense. The sealing and expungement of arrest records is of particular importance to members of the class, who were concerned about the potential effect on their reputations and good standing in the eyes of law enforcement.

Perhaps most significantly, the City has agreed to incorporate key court rulings from the Hankin case into police training. Those rulings make clear that police lacked probable cause to arrest both the peaceful protesters at Westlake and others arrested outside the “no protest zone.” Improved training will help ensure that police officers will protect individuals’ constitutional rights against unlawful search and seizure in the future.

The monetary settlement negotiated by Public Justice will secure a financial recovery for each protester in the range of $3,000 to $10,000, depending on the number of class members who file claims. The settlement fund will be paid with insurance proceeds, rather than by City taxpayers.

In addition to the trial team, the plaintiffs were represented by Public Justice Staff Attorney Victoria Ni and Public Justice Executive Director Arthur Bryant.

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