March 14, 2013 at 5:00 PM
Court upholds tiny verdict, bigger attorneys fees in SPD civil-rights case
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a $1 verdict awarded to a man who Seattle police held at gunpoint for too long and affirmed an award of $92,000 to his attorneys for winning the case.
A three-member panel of the court agreed with a jury in U.S. District Court in Seattle that Officer Jonathan Chin violated the civil rights of Andrew Rutherford when, while off-duty in September 2007, he chased Rutherford and his friends for miles after a minor traffic violation and then held them at gunpoint while other officers rushed to the scene.
Rutherford was a passenger in a Jeep that Chin said swerved in front of his car and ran a red light on Capitol Hill. Chin, an off-duty rookie officer in plainclothes, followed the car to West Seattle while dialing 911 and calling for “fast backup,” an urgent call for help.
Alone and outnumbered, Chin drew his weapon and ordered the three men to sit in the street while other officers responded. Rutherford was held at gunpoint when the first patrol car sped down the street. According to testimony at the seven-day trial, when Rutherford jumped up to get out of the way, Chin and two other officers tackled and subdued him.
Rutherford suffered facial and head injuries, according to court pleadings.
He was charged with obstructing an officer, but the charges were dismissed.
A federal jury returned a verdict against Chin in May 2011 following a seven-day trial.
The appeals court said the evidence showed the men posed no threat to Chin and the decision to draw his weapon was ”unreasonable under the circumstances.” In upholding the award of attorney’s fees, the panel said U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman did not abuse her discretion by awarding Rutherford’s attorneys, Jay Krulewitch and Michael Kolker, the $92,000, which was about a fifth of what they had asked for.
Chin’s attorneys and the Seattle Police Department challenged not just the verdict, but its validity. In fighting it, they submitted a declaration from Assistant Chief Dick Reed who said that the jury’s finding that Chin had violated Rutherford’s civil rights provided the department “no basis to revisit current training protocols.”
Pechman said Reed’s statements were “self-serving,” adding that, “It is a sad day when the Seattle Police Department cannot stop to reflect upon the voices of citizen jurors who think that their conduct has overstepped the line, or contemplate a change when anofficer’s judgement is found wanting.”
The city has already paid at least $330,000 to an outside law firm that represented the Police Department and Chin at trial and on appeal.
Kimberly Mills, spokeswoman for the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, said the city is reviewing the decision. Krulewitch did not have an immediate response for comment.
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