Supreme Court won’t hear Seattle’s appeal of $1 verdict

Ending a long-running legal battle, the U.S. Supreme Court refused on Monday to hear a case in which the City of Seattle spent nearly $600,000 to challenge a lawsuit and $1 award to a man who was held at gunpoint by an off-duty police officer.

Attorneys for the man, Andrew Rutherford, hailed the court’s decision.

“This is an important victory for Mr. Rutherford, the local community, and the Fourth Amendment,” trial attorneys Jay Krulewitch and Michael Kolker and appellate lawyers Leonard Feldman and Sara Berry said in a written statement. The attorneys said they will now seek an estimated $50,000 to cover their additional costs of contesting the city’s petition to the Supreme Court.

The high court’s decision was a setback for the Seattle Police Department and City Attorney Pete Holmes, who despite the minimal award opted to fight the outcome at every legal step.

Holmes not only appealed the verdict, he also sought to overturn a 1994 California case that Rutherford’s attorneys had heavily relied on in arguing their case. He asserted it was matter of protecting officer safety.

Holmes, in a written statement Monday, said, “It is very difficult to obtain review from the U.S. Supreme Court.”

A federal jury found in 2011 that Seattle police Officer Jonathan Chin violated Rutherford’s constitutional rights by holding him at gunpoint for too long.

Chin, who was alone, off-duty and in civilian clothes, held Rutherford and two others at gunpoint after chasing the men for several miles in his personal car early on Sept. 9, 2007. Chin said he had seen their car driving erratically and suspected they were drunk.

After calling 911 and following the men to a cul-de-sac, Chin confronted them with his off-duty weapon and ordered them to sit in the street while he waited for backup. Rutherford was sitting in the street when the first patrol vehicle raced down the street. Afraid it was going to hit him, Rutherford jumped up and moved, according to court documents and trial testimony.

Several officers tackled, subdued and restrained Rutherford, who suffered a head abrasion that required him to be taken to a hospital for evaluation and cost him $3,500 in medical bills, according to documents submitted during the trial.

Rutherford was charged with obstructing an officer, but the case was dismissed. The driver of the car pleaded guilty to reckless driving.

After Rutherford sued, the jury found Chin’s actions “exceeded the length and scope of the investigatory stop,” violating his constitutional rights.

Jurors rejected Rutherford’s claims of false arrest, excessive force and assault.

The jury also didn’t award him any damages, but Chief U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman awarded Rutherford $1, allowing his attorneys to eventually collect $90,000 in legal fees.

That amount grew to $174,000 when the city appealed the case twice to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and lost each time.

In defending Chin, Holmes’ office paid $376,722.50 to contract lawyers hired to handle the case.

Holmes also hired former U.S. Solicitor General Gregory Garre to draft a petition asking the Supreme Court to hear the case.

In his statement, Holmes said, “The jury awarded no damages to the plaintiff for police actions in this case involving reckless and drunk driving, a serious and growing public safety problem. But the law enforcement issues — proper application of qualified immunity and the ability of police officers to protect themselves in dangerous encounters — remain critically important to the City of Seattle and the many Ninth Circuit jurisdictions that joined our petition, including the states of Washington, Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and the Territory of Guam.”

Without comment, the court on Monday declined to hear the case.

Holmes had hoped the court would review a 1994 ruling out of California, Washington v. Lambert, in which the 9th Circuit limited when police can display a firearm and threaten deadly force during routine investigative stops.

In that case, the court found that “under ordinary circumstances” police cannot display a weapon or use restraints during a routine investigatory stop — when they only suspect a crime might have occurred — without violating the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against illegal seizure.

But the court recognized a series of “special circumstances” under which “especially intrusive” means can be legally used. They include uncooperative suspects who pose the risk of danger or flight; if police have information that the person is armed; if the stop occurs in proximity to a violent crime, or instances where police have information that a violent crime is about to occur.

The court said a drawn gun “greatly increases the seriousness of the stop,” and that pointing the weapon has to be reserved for instances where the threat is “clear and present.”

Holmes, citing the officer safety issue, maintained the expense of the Supreme Court appeal was justified. The city’s petition argued that officers should be free to draw a weapon in self-defense without worrying about a checklist of “special circumstances” that could lead to a lawsuit.

Holmes added, “We will continue to seek clarity in the application of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence to better guide law enforcement officers in furtherance of public safety.”

Rutherford’s attorneys contended the city’s position could broaden police powers and lead to more violent encounters with police.

In their statement Monday, his attorneys said, “The jury and the district court in this matter correctly concluded that Officer Chin violated Rutherford’s Fourth Amendment rights by detaining him at gunpoint without justification in a routine traffic stop. The Ninth Circuit also reached the right result, one that properly protects the constitutional right to be free of unlawful seizures. We are pleased that the United States Supreme Court allowed those decisions to stand.”

To date, the city has spent $587,000 in legal fees, including $50,000 paid to Garre.