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caption: A crowd gathers around the Seattle Police Department's East Precinct Building at the intersection of 12th Avenue and East Pine Street on Saturday, June 13, 2020, inside the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, CHAZ, or Capitol Hill Organized Protest, CHOP, in Seattle.
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A crowd gathers around the Seattle Police Department's East Precinct Building at the intersection of 12th Avenue and East Pine Street on Saturday, June 13, 2020, inside the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, CHAZ, or Capitol Hill Organized Protest, CHOP, in Seattle.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Many protest-related misdemeanors on hold, says Seattle City Attorney

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said by the end of October, the Seattle Police Department had referred 261 protest-related misdemeanor cases to his office, which declined 143 of them.

Dozens more have yet to be considered. Those remaining cases “have not been given a pass. They have not been declined,” he said. “But we will get to them when the court can handle them.”

The City Attorney's office has filed about nine cases related to several months of protests against police violence. Two defendants agreed to complete a diversion program at Choose 180, and four had their cases dismissed.

Holmes said there are three active cases remaining. They include a person charged with assaulting a photographer and a police officer during a demonstration against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement last Wednesday. A case involving brandishing weapons was resolved through a guilty plea, and the third case involves theft during the looting downtown May 30.

Holmes said the small number is mostly due to the pandemic and its constraints on the court system. He said King County Jail is only detaining people facing charges for direct threats to public safety. That includes allegations of assault, violating protection orders, and driving under the influence. Holmes said people arrested for less urgent cases are booked and released.

“And that means that property cases for which an arrest has been made — they are released before our prosecutors can look at them, and we’ll get to them when we can,” he said. “We’re giving them close, careful scrutiny and we’re getting to them in a logical manner.”

He said interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz’s comments Saturday about tougher consequences for people who commit property crimes during demonstrations may have led to confusion. “The press conference itself was a bit of a surprise to me — actually a complete surprise,” Holmes said. “I think, having spoken to Chief Diaz afterward, I think he simply misspoke.” Holmes said his policy has not changed — he will not charge people for any activity related to peacefully protesting.

At the impromptu Seattle police press conference, Diaz called on people taking part in protests to respect the law and emphasized that thanks to a joint decision with the City Attorney’s Office, “people are going to be prosecuted.” Holmes said in reality his office must look at the facts of each case. “I don’t know of any good prosecutor who would promise in advance to prosecute a case that has not yet reached his or her office,” he said.

Holmes did confirm that he and Chief Diaz spoke last Friday about ensuring police officers can reach a liaison in the City Attorney’s Office for any questions as they fill out their reports. Those liaisons used to be available in each police precinct but are now working remotely. Holmes said problems with police reports last summer, such as multiple arrests having the same description, kept some cases from proceeding.

“It’s probably not too surprising that sometimes the officers couldn’t do the full report-writing that was needed. But nonetheless it means prosecutors can’t bring those cases,” he said. “You can imagine what defense counsel would do if they had two dozen defendants, all of them having the identical arrest narrative against them.”

Holmes also noted that his office handles cases of property damage valued at $750 or less. The cost of smashed storefronts often exceeds that amount, and is therefore referred to the King County Prosecutor’s Office. That office filed a second-degree burglary case against the man accused of shattering windows and entering “what’s known as the original Starbucks last Wednesday night during the post-inauguration vandalism,” a spokesperson said.

City Attorney spokesperson Dan Nolte said the office had to decline some potential cases for charges of obstruction, failure to disperse, and pedestrian interference. He said prosecutors determined that the cases weren’t strong enough to convince a jury, in part because of the “pandemonium” taking place at the time the arrests occurred.