University of Washington Professor Shirley Scheier has settled the lawsuit over her arrest by the City of Snohomish for taking pictures of power lines. The American Civil Liberties Union represented her and settled for $8000. The settlement is disappointing and disturbing given the small damages and lack of deterrent effect for the city.
A fine arts teacher, Scheier, 55, was driving home in October 2005 when a Snohomish police officer stopped her car to question her about “suspicious” conduct in photographing power lines. Scheier’s art often involves photographing public structures and told the officers that it was for an exhibit. The police nevertheless arrested her, cuffed her, and held her in a police car for 25 minutes.
While damages in such a case would likely be low, the ruling would have produced a finding that the arrest was unlawful. By agreeing to the settlement, the city was allowed to dismiss the matter as a small expense with no finding of wrong doing. Not only has no action been taken against the officers, the city is heralding their actions was entirely correct. Snohomish City Manager Larry Bauman insisted that “I believe our officers acted completely within our standards and procedures, and properly based on the 911 call we received from the Bonneville Power Administration.”
This represents a difference among public interest lawyers in handling such cases. This is something of a pattern for the ACLU, which often settles cases rather than go to trial, including consolidated cases where I have represented other litigants who refused such settlements. I have great respect for their work, but these small settlements do little beyond generating the initial coverage and requiring small expenditures from the cities. The figure in this case appears to be lifted from a 2004 case in which the City of Seattle paid Bogdan Mohora the same amount after being arrested for photographing the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. He was also represented by the ACLU.
These settlements tend to undermine other public interest lawsuits by setting damages at a very low level. It encourages cities to run the clock on litigation and then offer minimal compensation — often citing the ACLU settlements from prior cases. Courts tend to view other cases as setting the level of standard compensation. In the federal system under Rule 68, this can present an added risk for litigants who refuse the settlement offer.
For the full story, click here.