Trial date set for contempt charges over SPD use of crowd-control weapons (UPDATED)

This morning, Judge Richard Jones set a trial date and determined several other parameters for his consideration of contempt charges over SPD’s alleged violation last Saturday of a preliminary injunction that restricts the department’s use of crowd-control weapons. The five-day trial will begin on August 26 and conclude on September 1.

Earlier this week, attorneys for the ACLU and Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County asked Judge Jones to find SPD in contempt of his June 12 order placing certain restrictions on the circumstances and methods in which SPD may use tear gas, blast balls, and other crowd-control weapons.

Yesterday, Jones issued an order finding that the charge requires an evidentiary hearing to allow SPD to mount a defense. This morning’s hearing was to talk through the logistics and parameters of the hearing. Judge Jones began by expanding on his thinking, noting:

  • the court has decided to have an evidentiary hearing, that it not up for debate. It’s a situation of “indirect contempt,” requiring evidence, and it’s improper for the court to make a determination without giving the defendant an opportunity to respond and refute evidence submitted by the plaintiffs.
  • it is a civil contempt charge, not a criminal contempt charge;
  • in their response, the defendants only responded to some of the claims against it, not all;
  • he will not outright dismiss the claims at this time, because he wants to hear from the defendants.

Judge Jones also acknowledged that holding the hearing will be difficult because at this time the federal courthouse is close due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But at the same time, he recognizing that there is urgency in resolving the matter because protest are ongoing. SPD asked for 60 days to review and prepare evidence; both the plaintiffs and Judge Jones thought that was too long.

A tension in moving the case forward is between managing the scope of the incidents that the city needs to respond to, and the time that it needs to prepare. The plaintiffs, naturally, want to keep it wide and open; the city wants to narrow it down so it can focus. They meet in the middle when it comes to the schedule: the wider the scope, the longer the city needs to prepare. SPD’s lawyers suggested that it be limited to the 20 declarations submitted in the plaintiffs’ original motion; the plaintiffs weren’t willing to commit to that yet. Jones pushed both sides to agree to a “hybrid” approach that combined written, pre-submitted affidavits where possible in lieu of live testimony to cut down the trial length.

In the end, Judge Jones ordered a five-day trial, to begin on August 26 and run through September 1, with each side allotted 2.5 days, on a “chess clock,” to make their case. the run-up to the case looks like this:

  • Initial disclosures, including affidavits, are due on August 5.
  • Responding disclosures are due August 12.
  • A joint status report is due on August 13, with a status hearing if necessary at 9am on August 14.
  • A joint witness and evidentiary exhibit list is due August 18.
  • Exhibits and other documents must be submitted to the court by August 21 so the judge can review them in advance of the hearing.

The trial will be held over Zoom, with audio-only access available to the press and the public.

There was some debate over how to handle the 1,394 videos from body-worn cameras that SPD is processing from last Saturday’s protest/riot. The judge instructed SPD to make sure it provides in a timely manner all of the relevant videos to the plaintiffs; but the plaintiffs asked for access to all 1,394 of them so it could determine relevance on its own. Jones denied that request, and instructed the parties to confer and craft a plan for what the plaintiffs need and SPD can deliver — and to come back to him if they can’t agree.

The plaintiffs also urged Jones not to wait until after the trial concludes to make modifications to his original injunction, characterizing the changes they are asking for as “clarifications.”  Both SPD’s attorneys and Judge Jones disagreed with that assessment, saying that they are significant enough changes to amount to a new order — and Judge stated that he was “quite precise” in his original order and is unwilling to issue a new order without following the necessary protocols it requires.

Judge Jones concluded with an admonition of sorts for both sides. He said that the issues before the court related to the right to public protest and SPD’s proper use of force are “enormous,” and that that the charges of contempt were “stirring the pot.”  He urged attorneys for both sides to meet with their clients and tell them that the two sides need to meet and reach resolution on the issues before the court.

UPDATE: here is Judge Jones’ order memorializing the decisions he made in this morning’s hearing.

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