The city's insurance company has agreed to pay $1 million to settle claims from about 175 people who were wrongly arrested during a peaceful World Trade Organization protest in 1999.
The case went to trial in January, and a federal jury found Seattle liable for violating the protesters' constitutional rights by arresting them without probable cause. The settlement, announced Monday, avoids a damages phase to determine how much the city owed, and it resolves the last outstanding claims against the city from the protests.
"The police can respect the constitutional rights of protesters and at the same time protect the public safety," said Mike Withey of Washington, D.C.-based Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, which brought the lawsuit.
As part of the settlement, which a federal judge must approve, the city will seal the arrest records and ask any law enforcement agencies that received copies to expunge them, Withey said. Each protester will be eligible to receive $3,000 to $10,000, and some of the settlement will be used to pay legal fees.
City Attorney Tom Carr said the city believes it would have won an appeal.
"However, the city's insurance company decided to settle the case rather than to continue to fund the appellate litigation," Carr said in a news release.
The insurance company is National Union, said Carr's assistant, Ruth Bowman. The company did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
Protesters were singing anthems
The trial stemmed from the mass arrest of protesters at a downtown park, where they were sitting and singing patriotic anthems. That week, 50,000 demonstrators had swarmed Seattle, overwhelming police and closing down parts of the WTO meeting.
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 city agreed in the settlement to issue copies of Pechman's rulings in the case to police cadets and officers to help prevent unlawful mass arrests, Withey said.
Lead plaintiff Ken Hankin, a Boeing worker, said he was pleased the settlement had been reached but added that getting a few thousand dollars seemed paltry compared to the violation of his rights. He spent three days in police custody and wasn't released until the WTO meetings had ended.
"I lost my right to protest the WTO," he said. "That's something I feel very upset about."
Seattle previously paid about $800,000 in more than a dozen WTO lawsuits and claims.