Monday, September 29, 2008

The Thinnest of Blue Lines

This morning those of us who were arrested last June 9 in association with the Camp4Unity protest and camp out at City Hall opted to take our case to trial. One condition for accepting the city's offer of community service and dismissal after a year of good behavior was a non-negotiable point of principle that turned out to be a no go for the prosecution.

Several of those arrested have been staying at Nickelsville, and at least one is homeless and has few viable alternatives to camping out. Unless sleeping on public property is exempted as one of the "criminal activities" that would violate the agreement, we said, we would all take our chances with taking the matter to trial.

The City Attorney has charged the Camp4Unity 15 with pedestrian interference and failure to obey the lawful order of a police officer. Defendants face potential penalties of up to a year in jail or a $5,000 fine.

After the City Attorney's office refused to meet our conditions in pre-hearing negotiations this morning, the court appearance was largely an administrative matter. It wasn't exactly exciting. As I waited to be called, I sat next to Scott Morrow, who had been up last night preparing a list of 25 alternate locations for Nickelsville. He snores.

Proceedings for our group were briefly interrupted by a hearing for a man who I'll refer to as The Unfortunate Mr. E. As he was led in by an officer wearing the standard blue rubber gloves — cuffed behind his back and garbed in a red prison jumpsuit — I thought, "Wow, this is misdemeanor court. Who let an actual criminal in here." His spider web elbow tat's, shaved head, and long Charlie Manson beard left me speculating over what horrible crime this man had committed. Father raping? Mother stabbing? I was dying to know.

As it turned out, the Unfortunate Mr. E was arrested in 2005 for driving with a suspended license. The matter was retired with time served, which turned out to be 24 days in jail.

"No wonder," I thought, "the city thinks they need a new jail." Knowing that The Unfortunate Mr. E had served 24 days for this heinous crime didn't make me feel any safer. It did, however, make me feel slightly raped as a taxpayer.

Hanging out in a courtroom is always an education. Watching the Unfortunate Mr. E get cuffed behind his back once again so that, presumably, society would be just a little bit safer pending his final processing and release did little to enhance my opinion of the criminal justice system.

Our own trial will be an interesting matter as well. While "entrapment defense" and "Pedestrian Interference" are not words one would normally expect to appear in the same sentence, we're feeling pretty solid on this one.

When I arranged the civil disobedience with Sgt. Lou Eagle of the Seattle Police a few days before the event, I informed him that we would enter the street on 4th Ave in front of City Hall, whereupon we expected SPD to do their bit and arrest us.

"Can you limit your protest to two lanes so we can direct traffic around you," asked Eagle.

"Sure," I said. "We're about making a statement, not gumming up morning traffic."

Pedestrian interference means that we willfully prevented the flow of traffic. Interestingly, while this was once more or less about jaywalking, in recent years it has become the charge the city uses to prosecute no sit/lie ordinance and aggressive panhandling violations.

The morning of our event, our police liaisons were informed that the cops would be more inclined to expedite booking and release us at the precinct rather than take us to jail if we blocked the side street on Cherry instead. We helpfully agreed, and officers lined their bicycles across the intersection as we moved into the street. We were all released at West Precinct 45 minutes later.

So, what do you call it when you do not intend to commit a crime, but the government leads you to do just that?

Which perhaps explains why a Failure to Obey charge was tacked on after the fact. In all communications prior to the arrests, we were told that the charge would be pedestrian interference. When we received our court notifications about six weeks later, the new charge had been added. This is a charge that is seldom, if ever, used against protesters.

We're not the swiftest crew in the world, but it seems like the City Attorney's office might have considered our entrapment defense long before the strategy even dawned upon our lawyers, and tossed in the extra charge to hedge their bets. We'll see how that works for them.

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