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Originally published Thursday, June 30, 2011 at 9:03 PM

$1 verdict could cost city of Seattle $700,000

A jury verdict that awarded $1 to a man who was held at gunpoint too long by a Seattle police officer has already cost city taxpayers more than $300,000 — but the final bill could more than double.

Seattle Times staff reporter

quotes Lawyers. Seattle cops. Taxpayers screwed. What's new? Read more
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A jury verdict that awarded $1 to a man who was held at gunpoint too long by a Seattle police officer has already cost city taxpayers more than $300,000 — but the final bill could more than double.

The lawyers for Andrew Rutherford have asked U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman to approve attorneys' fees and costs totaling more than $419,000, according to declarations they filed.

Meantime, Stafford Frey Cooper, the private law firm retained by the police officers involved, has already billed the city $331,000 to defend the case to date, according to Kimberly Mills, the city attorney's spokeswoman.

Rutherford — who had asked for $3 million in his initial claim against the city — was awarded the $1 verdict by Pechman in June in response to a confusing verdict after his seven-day, civil-rights trial in May.

Rutherford was one of three men held at gunpoint by off-duty Seattle police Officer Jonathan Chin, who in 2007 followed them from Capitol Hill to West Seattle in plain clothes and in his personal car after the men allegedly cut him off in traffic and ran a red light. Rutherford was a passenger in the car.

Chin confronted the men alone on a darkened street and ordered them at gunpoint to sit and wait for the emergency backup he had called to request.

Rutherford was sitting in the middle of the road when the first patrol vehicle raced down the street; afraid it was going to hit him, he jumped up and moved, according to court documents and trial testimony.

Rutherford was tackled, subdued and restrained by several officers, sustaining a head abrasion that required him to be taken to Harborview Medical Center 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 charge was dismissed.

The jury in the civil-rights trial cleared Chin and four other officers of allegations they used excessive force, and found that Chin was within his rights to briefly detain the men at gunpoint for investigative purposes. But it found that the detention went on too long and that Rutherford's civil rights were violated.

At issue are the provisions of a 1968 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that holds that police may briefly detain someone they reasonably suspect is involved in criminal activity.

That detention, however, must be limited in length and scope to balance the citizen's Fourth Amendment rights prohibiting illegal search and seizure with public- and officer-safety concerns.

The jury found Rutherford's detention exceeded the limits set by the high court.

Pechman said the jury received an improper instruction that said they "may" impose nominal damages, not to exceed $1, if they arrived at that verdict.

She said that well-established law in the 9th U.S. Circuit states a jury "must" impose nominal damages at that point.

The distinction means little in the way of cash to Rutherford, but it allowed his lawyers — Jay Krulewitch and Michael Kolker — to seek fees from the city for prevailing in the lawsuit.

Krulewitch, a 23-year veteran Seattle attorney with extensive experience trying alleged police-misconduct cases, said he invested more than 600 hours into the Rutherford case and is asking to be compensated at $300 an hour.

He also is seeking to recover more than $19,000 in expenses and costs.

Kolker, who has also practiced law in Seattle for more than 20 years, said he spent 700 hours on the case and is asking to be paid the same rate.

The motions brought a sharp response from Ted Buck, one of the two Stafford Frey attorneys who represented the city and police officers, who wrote earlier this week, "If ever there was a technically 'prevailing' plaintiff who deserved no attorneys fees at all it, is Andrew Rutherford.

"He was lawfully arrested, suffered only an abrasion to his forehead, spent no time in a detention facility and was fortunate to have the criminal charges against him dismissed," Buck wrote. "He demanded $3 million from the city pretrial and $300,000 at trial — he was awarded nothing" by the jury.

"His meager success is so ambiguous it cannot serve even as admonishment to the defendants," Buck said, referring to a declaration filed by Assistant Police Chief Richard Reed, who said the department's lawyers have reviewed the verdict and the department's policy governing the behavior of off-duty officers.

Buck's firm has billed the city $331,000 to date for its defense in the case, said Mills, the city spokeswoman.

City Attorney Peter Holmes has said he plans to end the city's contract with Stafford Frey Cooper, which has defended the department for decades.

The Seattle Police Officers' Guild has filed an unfair-labor practice complaint over the planned change.

Holmes said that putting complex litigation such as police-misconduct cases out to bid could save the city $800,000 annually.

He declined to comment on the Rutherford case because his office "is currently weighing the merits of the dozen or so proposals from law firms (including Stafford Frey) to handle police action cases," Mills said.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.

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