From May Day riots to minimum wage rallies and recent demonstrations against police brutality, 2014 has been another year for protest in the city of Seattle.
According to the Seattle Police Department, there have been more than 300 protests so far this year, the vast majority of which were peaceful. But for those that ended in arrests, the city has used a clear set of guidelines to determine which protesters to charge criminally.
“Most often, these cases present a delicate and difficult balance between preserving an individual’s rights under the First Amendment and maintaining the health and safety of our community,” read an internal memo sent to staff in the Criminal Division of the Seattle City Attorney’s Office.
The memo outlines which behaviors would likely lead to criminal charges in the event protesters are arrested and booked into jail:
Physical assault, force, or resistance used against a responding officer or others. This includes physical resistance intended to avoid arrest or removal; or
Destruction of/damage to property (public or private); or
Threats of physical harm to persons or property; or
Providing a false name or engagement in other acts of deception.
While the policy covers a wide range of crimes, it gives a free pass to a number of non-violent protesters who police have arrested in recent years.
For example, on August 1, 2013, eight protesters were arrested for blocking traffic outside a McDonald’s restaurant at Third Avenue and Pine Street to demand higher wages. The protest occurred during the busy afternoon rush hour, and Seattle police gave the demonstrators several commands to move before making arrests.
A month later, the City Attorney’s Office declined to file charges against any of the protesters arrested that day.
“I can’t speak to that specific case, because I don’t have all the details in front of me, but what I can tell you is if individuals want to exercise their First Amendment right and get arrested for the principle of getting arrested, then that is their absolute right to do so,” said Craig Sims, chief of the Criminal Division.
“The City Attorney’s Office, in conjunction with the Seattle Police Department, have created a policy that we will not file charges against those people who want to be arrested for the principle of being arrested,” Sims said.
Asked whether it was a waste of police resources to arrest protesters who will not be charged criminally, the police department’s lead spokesperson said officers are happy to help facilitate civil disobedience.
“That’s really just part of our city’s culture,” said Sgt. Sean Whitcomb. “We’re the Seattle Police Department, it’s our job to serve the people that live here. People want to come to Seattle to protest, we want to facilitate that First Amendment right.”
“We’re always happy to put someone in handcuffs for their cause,” he added.
Other cities take a much different approach.
In Bellevue, for example, the same group of protesters that organized the demonstration in front of the Seattle McDonalds’s held a similar protest in September of this year.
Just like in Seattle, eight protesters were arrested for blocking an intersection to demand higher wages for fast food workers. The only difference? Bellevue charged seven of the protesters with disorderly conduct and charges against the eighth are pending.
Bellevue city prosecutors also charged 12 of 15 protesters arrested for blocking the street outside a Factoria Walmart in 2013. All 12 pleaded guilty and were ordered to perform community service.
“The City of Bellevue takes all crimes committed within our city borders very seriously,” the city wrote in a statement. “When our prosecutors receive a case from the police, they carefully review it to determine if there is enough evidence to establish that a crime has occurred and if we can prove it in court. If the answer is yes, then, in most circumstances, we move forward with charges. We respect and honor an individual’s freedom of speech – but it must be exercised legally or consequences can be expected. If they choose civil disobedience, they will be held accountable.”
Other cities have chosen the same path.
In the city of SeaTac, four protesters were charged with disorderly conduct for blocking traffic in front of Alaska Airlines’ headquarters while demanding higher pay for airline employees.
Among those arrested and charged was Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, who now faces a maximum of 90 days in jail or a $1,000 fine.
Had Sawant and her supporters held the same demonstration in Seattle and committed the exact same acts of civil disobedience, charges would have been unlikely based on guidelines set forth by the City Attorney’s Office.
Sims stressed that the guidelines are not absolute, but that his attorneys have been “consistent” in how those guidelines are applied.
“As prosecutors, we take our roles extremely seriously,” he said.
“We don’t arbitrarily or capriciously exercise our discretion that we have when we’re making decisions on individual’s lives.”
Seattle police have arrested more than 20 protesters during recent anti-police brutality demonstrations, and Sgt. Whitcomb said the City Attorney’s Office made a promise to charge those booked into jail for misdemeanors.
“If our department was forced to make arrests on lawbreakers, we wanted to be sure that there would be some sort of consequences,” he said. “We did receive a commitment from the city attorney that if we booked people for crimes based on solid probable cause, then they would be charged.”
For the most part, Seattle police have limited arrests during recent demonstrations to those suspected of assaulting officers or obstructing justice. Many of those protesters have already been charged, in line with the city’s guidelines. Protesters arrested on felony charges will have their cases handled by the King County Prosecutor’s Office.
While officers have made several arrests in recent weeks for pedestrian inference, the same crime that failed to result in charges against fast food protesters, it is unclear if the City Attorney’s Office will prosecute those cases as they do not fall within the guidelines for prosecution.