Threatening the right to lawful protest

The US District Court in Tacoma, Washington, has awarded $248,817 in attorney’s fees and costs for an Olympia activist in a case involving covert surveillance by several government agencies. The money comes after plaintiff Phil Chinn accepted three offers totaling $169,000 in May from the Washington State Patrol, the City of Aberdeen, and Grays Harbor County in settlement that officials of those agencies violated his rights to lawful protest.

The Court stated, “This case was far more than a wrongful arrest case. Besides ordinary damages, it was an attempt to vindicate the plaintiff’s civil rights, and involved issues of whether governmental agencies were unconstitutionally targeting and arresting protesters without probable cause.” The Court further observed that, “… the willingness of the defendants to make the offers of judgment could be viewed by the plaintiff and the public as some vindication of the plaintiff’s position.”

Chinn stated that police officers pulled him over in May 2007 because he was driving in a car with “three identified anarchists.” Chinn asserted that he and his passengers were presumed to be “anarchists” by the state troopers and were therefore pulled over based on covert surveillance operations.

Prior to the incident, the Washington State Patrol had been ordered to deter and prevent anti-war demonstrations at the Port of Grays Harbor. A plan was designed to deter and prevent individuals believed to be “anarchists” or associated with anarchists from participating in anti-war demonstrations.

Chinn was driving from Olympia to Aberdeen on May 6, 2007, to participate in a lawful demonstration against the use of the Port of Grays Harbor for military shipments. Chinn abided by all traffic laws and was not under the influence of any substance. Despite this, state troopers received a message to find Chinn’s vehicle (identified by make, model, and license plate) because they were informed that known anarchists were in the car on their way to the demonstration.

“In America, people have the right to engage in lawful protest without being targeted by law enforcement because of their political beliefs. This settlement sends a strong message to public officials around the state that they need to respect free speech rights and political dissent,” said ACLU of Washington Executive Director Kathleen Taylor.

After being arrested and charged with DUI, Chinn was released after copies of the police dispatch log and audio recording were released in response to a request for public records. These revealed the “attempt to locate” alert, including the statement that Chinn’s vehicle was carrying “three identified anarchists,” who were believed to be headed to the demonstration. All charges were then dismissed.

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