City to pay protesters $250,000 to settle WTO suit

Seattle settled a lawsuit brought by World Trade Organization (WTO) protesters for $250,000 yesterday, just before the case was scheduled to go to trial next week.

The lawsuit stemmed from the arrest of 157 people outside a "no-protest zone" on Dec. 1, 1999.

U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman ruled last month that Seattle police lacked probable cause to arrest the protesters, leaving the city vulnerable to damages from the class-action lawsuit.

Since that decision was handed down, the city has been trying to settle, according to City Attorney Tom Carr. "We had potential liability, and we paid less than $2,000 per person and ended the risk that the city would face substantial exposure," he said.

Steve Berman, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said he considered the settlement a victory, although he didn't get an apology he wanted from the city. Still, Pechman's ruling vindicated the protesters' claim that they were illegally rounded up and detained, Berman said, and the $250,000 settlement was "enough to be some kind of deterrent."

"I think the clients set out to make a point with the case, and the point was they were arrested illegally," Berman said. "No one was trying to get rich out of this."

One-quarter to one-third of the money will go to attorney fees, Berman said, with the rest disbursed among the plaintiffs.

The deal closes one legal chapter in the WTO saga. A case involving the constitutionality of the no-protest zone is waiting to be heard by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Berman said bigger issues will be argued in that case, which appeals a 2001 ruling by U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein She upheld the no-protest zone, saying, "Free speech must sometimes bend to public safety."

Berman said, "I'm highly confident we're going to win that case." If so, the city could be liable for hundreds of arrests inside the no-protest zone.

Yesterday's settlement must be approved by Pechman. Berman and Carr said they did not anticipate problems from the judge.

In her pivotal ruling last month, Pechman cited "atrocious" record keeping by police, noting that photocopied arrest warrants were used to round up protesters. The forms were signed by a police lieutenant who later acknowledged he had not made any of the arrests.

Attorneys for the protesters argued that police violated the constitutional rights of the people they arrested. Their lawsuit contended many protesters and bystanders were herded together and arrested without being given a chance to disperse.

Both sides agreed that had the case gone to trial, it would have hinged on whether city policy-makers approved of the arrests, including Mayor Paul Schell and Police Chief Norm Stamper. Stamper resigned shortly after the riots.

Carr said it has never been the city's policy to arrest anyone without probable cause. But he acknowledged a jury might have found "implicit approval" of such a policy in the Police Department's actions.

The city did not admit to liability in the settlement, Carr said, and it released the city from future claims stemming from the arrest of 157 citizens outside the no-protest zone.

"We all learned a lot from the WTO experience," he added. "I hope it never happens again and this allows us to move on."