Home » News » Jury awards $700k to Seattle protesters jailed for writing anti-police slogans in chalk on barricade

By Mark Thiessen, The Associated Press, published on June 28, 2024

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This image taken from a Seattle Police Department body camera shows part of anti-police graffiti written in chalk on a concrete barricade outside of the East Precinct of the Seattle Police Department, Jan. 1, 2021, in Seattle. Seattle Police Department via AP

Four protesters who were jailed for writing anti-police graffiti in chalk on a temporary barricade near a Seattle police precinct have been awarded nearly $700,000 after a federal court jury decided their civil rights were violated.

The Jan. 1, 2021, arrests of the four followed the intense Black Lives Matter protests that rocked Seattle and numerous other cities throughout the world the previous summer in the wake of the death in police custody of George Floyd, a black man.

“The tensions of that summer and the feelings that were alive in the city at that time are obviously a big part of this case,” said Nathaniel Flack, one of the attorneys for the four protesters. “And what the evidence showed was that it was animus towards Black Lives Matter protesters that motivated the arrests and jailing of the plaintiffs.”

Derek Tucson, Robin Snyder, Monsieree De Castro and Erik Moya-Delgado were each awarded $20,000 in compensatory damages and $150,000 in punitive damages when the 10-person jury returned its verdict late June 21.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court against the city of Seattle and four police officers, Ryan Kennard, Dylan Nelson, Alexander Patton and Michele Letizia. The jury found the city and officers arrested and jailed the four as retaliation, and the officers acted with malice, reckless disregard or oppression denying the plaintiffs their First Amendment rights.

Email messages sent to the Seattle city attorney’s office, Seattle police and the police guild seeking comment were not returned.

On New Year’s Day 2021, the four protesters used chalk and charcoal to write messages like “Peaceful Protest” and “Free Them All” on a temporary barricade near the police department’s East Precinct. Body-cam images introduced at trial showed at last three police cruisers responded to the scene to arrest the four for violating the city’s anti-graffiti laws.

The four spent one night in jail, but were never prosecuted.

Flack said testimony presented at trial showed police don’t usually enforce the law banning the use of sidewalk chalk. In fact, attorneys showed video of officers writing “I (heart) POLICE” with chalk on a sidewalk at another event in Seattle.

Flack said it was also unusual the four were jailed because it came during an outbreak of COVID-19 and only the most serious offenders were to be incarcerated.

“These officers were doing what they called the ‘protester exception,’ which meant that if you’re a protester, if you have a certain message or a certain kind of speech that you’re putting out there, then they will book you into jail,” Flack said.

“The jury not only found that the individual officers were doing that, but that there was actually a broader practice that the city leadership knew about and was responsible for as well,” he said.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs said this should be a warning and a lesson to police officers and other government officials across the county who violate the First Amendment rights of citizens.

“This was a content-based and viewpoint-based law enforcement decision that resulted in our clients being locked up for what they had to say,” Flack said. “The important thing here is that the police cannot jail people for the content of their speech.”

Thiessen reported from Anchorage, Alaska.

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