After a heap of bad press and expensive lawsuits, the city appears to finally be taking steps to reduce the number of obstruction arrests made by the Seattle Police Department.
Charges of obstruction—a gross misdemeanor punishable by a $5,000 fine and up to a year in jail—are intended to protect officers from interference during an arrest. However, in some cases they are slapped on as a punitive measure when arrestees—or even bystanders—talk back or complain about officer conduct.
Obstruction arrests have become so controversial that earlier this month, in an apparent effort to protect bystanders from obstruction charges, Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske issued a directive outlining department policy. The directive states that bystanders can stay "in proximity" to an ongoing arrest as long as they don't get in the way.
However, not every city agency appears to have the same goal.
Since 1994, the city has had a law on the books that clearly defines obstruction and outlines the five ways obstruction can occur: physical interference in a police investigation, disobeying orders to stop, refusing to cease dangerous behavior, destroying material pertinent to an investigation, and refusing to leave the scene of an incident when lawfully requested.
But despite the existence of the city law, City Attorney Tom Carr continues to prosecute nearly a third of the city's obstruction cases using a more vaguely written state law that offers no such specifics. Of the 256 stand-alone obstruction cases the city has filed since January 2007, 106 were prosecuted under the state law, which simply defines obstruction as "willfully hinder[ing], delay[ing], or obstruct[ing]" an officer, and does not account for unlawful contact by an officer.
Carr's actions have drawn the attention of city council member Nick Licata, a longtime civil rights watchdog on the council. On June 12, Licata sent a letter asking Carr to explain why city prosecutors continue to file charges under the state code, despite the fact that the city council "indicated its wish that Seattle resources not be devoted to prosecuting people for failure to abide by unlawful police orders."
In addition to the firm definition of obstruction, the city law also protects people from obstruction convictions if a judge determines an officer was "not acting lawfully" during an arrest. In contrast, the state law does not take into account whether an obstruction charge arose from a perfectly legal traffic stop or an unlawful interrogation and search on the street.
It's not all that uncommon for on-street contact to quickly turn into an obstruction arrest. In the last few years, SPD has racked up a number of egregious obstruction cases that the city has taken to trial: Aaron Claxton, who was repeatedly Tasered in his North Seattle home and charged with obstruction when he failed to respond to officers who he claims did not identify themselves; Romelle Bradford, who was arrested outside the South Seattle Boys & Girls Club, where he worked, and thrown in jail for failing to respond to an officer's command to halt; and Carl Sandidge, who was Tasered in downtown Seattle by officers who also reportedly did not identify themselves. Claxton filed a claim against the city and settled for $20,000 in February. In May, a jury awarded Bradford $268,000 for his suit against the city, although the city has asked for a new trial. And in 2006, a judge ruled Sandidge not guilty and dismissed SPD's case with prejudice.
Because obstruction cases continue to be controversial, the police department's Office of Professional Accountability (OPA)—which handles SPD's internal investigations—is also doing an audit of obstruction cases. So far, OPA is only examining obstruction cases that resulted in a complaint against the arresting officer; but they may expand their audit in the future.
While the department appears to be taking a hard look at how it deals with obstruction, it's not clear if the city has any plans to change how it prosecutes cases. City Attorney Tom Carr did not return The Stranger's calls for comment on why the city continues to use the state law to prosecute obstruction.