City to pay $235,000 to resolve suits over SPD confrontation
The settlement resolved public-records and civil-rights lawsuits by a man over a confrontation with an off-duty Seattle police officer in 2009. One of the plaintiff’s attorneys said the city could have settled the case early on for a fraction of the cost.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The city of Seattle has agreed to pay $235,000 to a man who alleged he was illegally denied public records he sought from the Police Department to bolster his claim against an off-duty officer who pulled a gun on him in 2009.
The sum, which includes attorney fees and costs, will be paid to Evan Sargent, 24, of Seattle, under a settlement reached Friday to resolve public-records and civil-rights lawsuits brought against the Police Department and the city.
As part of the settlement, the city made no admission of liability.
A King County Superior Court judge initially found the Police Department had repeatedly violated the state’s Public Records Act by withholding documents from Sargent, and imposed $70,000 in penalties and legal fees.
On the city’s legal challenge, the state Court of Appeals unanimously found the department had failed to adequately explain all of its reasons for withholding some information from Sargent’s attorneys. But the court ruled the violations were unintentional, finding the fine “completely disproportionate” and ordering the case sent back to the lower court to refigure the fines.
Sargent appealed to the state Supreme Court, where the records issue was still pending when the settlement with the city was reached. Both sides agreed to ask the court to withdraw the case.
Sargent also brought a federal civil-rights suit over his confrontation on July 28, 2009, with the off-duty officer, Detective Donald Waters.
Sargent was arrested and booked into the King County Jail for investigation of aggravated assault on a police officer, but he was never charged.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly dismissed the suit in July, although he chastised Waters for not walking away from the confrontation with then-19-year-old Sargent, who had blocked a West Seattle alley with his grandfather’s truck while picking up laundry for his mother’s business.
Waters allegedly smashed the truck’s side mirror with his fist. But Zilly said Sargent “escalated” the situation when he brandished a baseball bat at Waters, who was trying to find parking to meet a friend for dinner nearby.
At that point, Zilly ruled, Waters, belligerent or not, had the right to arrest Sargent at gunpoint.
Sargent appealed Zilly’s decision to a federal appeals court, where the case initially went before a mediator.
When the mediator asked both sides if a settlement was possible, Sargent agreed to talks if both suits were subject to discussion, one of his attorneys, Mike McKay, said Monday.
He said the case spiraled into a $235,000 settlement though the matter initially could have been resolved for a $15,000 to $20,000 payment to Sargent.
“As a taxpayer in the city, I regret that,” McKay said.
But the case helped prod the Police Department to improve its public-records responses over the last few years, McKay said.
The City Attorney’s Office released details of the settlement Monday without comment.
Sargent’s case was among a handful of high-profile civil-rights lawsuits that have been highlighted by Seattle police critics as exemplifying the sorts of use-of-force and escalation issues that drove a Department of Justice investigation into the department.
The Justice Department investigation led to a settlement agreement last year and the appointment of a federal monitor to oversee reforms aimed at curbing excessive force and biased policing.
The Sargent case was particularly noteworthy because frustrations over obtaining documents led to a 2011 letter by McKay and his brother, John — both former U.S. attorneys in Western Washington — urging the Justice Department to investigate the Police Department. The letter came shortly after the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and 34 community groups had called for a civil-rights investigation of the Police Department.
Sargent will use his portion of the settlement — to be worked out confidentially with his attorneys — to repay his grandmother for covering his initial legal expenses and to pursue studies at a community college, McKay said.
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this story, which includes material from Times archives.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @stevemiletich