updated 1/30/2007 7:22:31 PM ET 2007-01-31T00:22:31

A federal jury found Tuesday that the city of Seattle violated the constitutional rights of a group arrested during the World Trade Organization meeting in 1999, a ruling that could cost the city millions of dollars.

The jury found the city liable for violating the rights of about 175 protesters against unreasonable search and seizure, but did not find a violation against their free speech rights.

A lawyer for the city argued that the mixed verdict shows the jury was confused by its instructions, and said Seattle will seek to dismiss the case.

Barring that challenge or an immediate appeal, the class-action lawsuit will move to a damages phase in which the city could be forced to pay millions of dollars. Seattle has already paid $800,000 in lawsuits and settlements stemming from the protests.

"The key point, the lesson learned, is you cannot arrest peaceful protesters here in Seattle or anywhere else in the country," said Kenneth Hankin, lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.

The trial stemmed from the arrest of Hankin and the other protesters at a downtown park Dec. 1, 1999, where they were sitting and singing patriotic American anthems. At the time, 50,000 demonstrators had swarmed Seattle, overwhelming police and closing down parts of the WTO meeting.

Arrests in 'no-protest zone'
The park was in a "no-protest" zone established by the mayor, but officers made no effort to determine whether the protesters had other legitimate reasons to be there before making the arrests, the jury decided.

In a pretrial ruling, U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman ruled the city had made the arrests without probable cause. Arrest reports were not filled out properly, she noted.

The jury's job was to determine whether the city could be held financially responsible for the false arrests. Lawyers for the protesters had to convince the jurors that the city had a policy targeting the protesters for their anti-WTO views or that city higher-ups approved the illegal arrests.

The city argued that it did have legitimate cause to arrest the protesters, that a shortage of manpower precluded officers from properly filling out arrest reports, and that the plaintiffs presented no evidence the protesters were arrested because of their political views.

"We think it's pretty clear that because the plaintiffs couldn't prove viewpoint discrimination, the city cannot be held liable for false arrest," attorney Ted Buck said.

But a lawyer for the protesters called the decision "a victory for the constitutional rights we all enjoy."

"The city is going to have its hands full trying to prove there was something wrong with this verdict," said attorney Mike Withey.

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