Statement on contempt ruling in Black Lives Matter v. Seattle

News Release: 
Monday, December 7, 2020
SEATTLE—A federal judge has held the city of Seattle in contempt of court after finding multiple violations of court orders barring the Seattle Police Department (SPD) from indiscriminately using chemical weapons and other less lethal weapons against crowds. U.S. District Court Judge Richard Jones’ ruling in Black Lives Matter v. City of Seattle comes after plaintiffs’ attorneys detailed four separate dates — on August 26, Sept. 7, Sept. 22, and Sept. 23 — in which SPD deployed excessive and indiscriminate force against protestors, violating court orders.

In his ruling announced Monday, Judge Jones found four clear instances where the City violated the Court’s orders:
  • On Sept. 7, an officer sprayed several retreating protesters in the face with OC spray. The officer approached the protesters from behind while riding a bicycle, and there was no specific imminent threat of physical harm against the officer.
  • On Sept. 7, an officer threw a blast ball – an explosive filled with pepper spray – indiscriminately into a group of protesters, even though he admittedly did not know who his target was.  
  • On Sept. 22, an officer was ordered to throw a blast ball into a crowd of protesters at a march in Capitol Hill, despite there being no apparent physical threat to officers. According to the court’s order, a desire to create separation between protesters and police does not authorize the use of less lethal weapons.
  • On Sept. 23, an officer threw a blast ball into a crowd of protesters and Judge Jones determined the officer demonstrated a clear lack of care for where the blast ball landed and that it was an indiscriminate deployment, therefore violating the Court’s orders.
Lisa Nowlin, staff attorney for the ACLU of Washington, had this reaction:
“We are pleased that the Court is acknowledging the City’s repeated violations of court orders and is holding them accountable. Seattle Police’s continued use of less lethal weapons against protesters is disturbing and the City needs to focus on protecting freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, rather than using force to prevent protesters from exercising their constitutionally-protected rights.”

Jones found four instances in which the City was in compliance, while holding that most instances were too inconclusive to determine — though that does not mean other violations did not occur. There were about 30 blast balls deployed on Sept. 23, for example, yet the City only provided body worn video footage for two of the instances.

David A. Perez, partner at Perkins Coie LLP, had this reaction on Jones’ ruling:
“Asking the Court to find the City in contempt was not an easy decision on our part.  But after witnessing repeated and blatant violations of protesters’ constitutional rights, we had to act.  This ruling reaffirms that the basic principle that protesters have a right to exercise their First Amendment freedoms without fear that the City will retaliate with violence, and serves as a reminder that the City cannot violate the Court’s orders without consequences. We will continue to take violations of the Court’s orders seriously.”

Robert Chang, Executive Director of the Fred T. Korematsu Center, had this reaction:
“This decision should be welcome news for everyone who believes in our country’s bedrock democratic ideals. People must be free to engage in peaceful protest without retribution from the City and its police department. It is crucial that officers protect free speech, not hinder it through force.”

The plaintiffs are represented by David A. Perez, Nitika Arora, Rachel Dallal, Carolyn Gilbert, Heath Hyatt, Ray Ivey and Paige L. Whidbee of Perkins Coie LLP; Molly Tack-Hooper, Nancy Talner, Lisa Nowlin, Breanne Schuster and John Midgley of the ACLU of Washington, and Robert Chang, Charlotte Garden, Melissa Lee, and Jessica Levin of the Korematsu Center of the Seattle University School of Law.