Law Profs Urge Suing Seattle Mayor Over CHAZ; Civil Action May Counterbalance Pressures From Activists
Citizens In The CHAZ Zone Should Sue Seattle And Its Mayor
WASHINGTON, D.C. (June 16, 2020) - Two law professors from the George Washington University Law School have suggested that citizens in the CHAZ zone sue Seattle and its mayor for allowing if not actually encouraging criminals to take over and continue unlawfully occupying public territory, setting up barricades around it on public streets, and reportedly impeding constituted law enforcement authorities and other first responders from carrying out their legal duties.
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Such a civil action for the extensive damages already suffered, as well as for the denial of basic city services, might serve as a counterbalance to the pressures Mayor Jenny Durkan is apparently under from the CHAZ occupiers and those who support their unlawful activities, says public interest law professor John Banzhaf, one of the two academics encouraging a law suit.
Writing about CHAZ (now apparently renamed CHOP) in THE HILL, law professor Jonathan Turley said that "withdrawing the police and giving in to mob control of even one small area is antithetical to the most basic concepts of governance. Indeed, unwilling citizens of Chaz could sue over that decision to surrender control of their precinct. The city could also be sued for damages caused by abandonment."
Riots Caused By The Death Of George Floyd
Banzhaf urged those injured in recent riots whether inside or outside the CHAZ, triggered in large part by the death of George Floyd, to sue those who went beyond their constitutionally protected right to protest, and engaged in widespread criminal activities such as arson, looting, physical assault, and destruction of private property. One journalist injured by criminal assaults committed by the rioters has already filed such a law suit.
Banzhaf says he in encouraging two other innocent victims who were also beaten by the rioters to sue, and also urging the same course of action by a TV broadcaster whose studio was damaged by the criminal activities of the rioters. He also helped inspire a still pending lawsuit against those who illegally caused the shutdown of a bridge, and may by their actions have caused at least one death.
It appears that Mayor Duncan is refusing to take action in the CHAZ because she agrees with and supports the occupiers and their cause. According to Turley, "Durkan shrugged off suggestions that she might have a responsibility to regain control of the area. In an interview, she described the takeover as nothing more than a block party. Pressed about when she may act, Durkan said she may simply abandon the area and allow for what she called a summer of love."
But, argues Banzhaf, the law does not permit governmental officials, elected or otherwise, to unlawfully refuse to enforce the law based upon personal beliefs about whether the cause apparently motivating criminal conduct is a "good" cause or a "bad" cause.
The Importance Of Addressing Climate Change
No doubt many people also believe very strongly that addressing climate change - generally regarded as a "liberal" cause - is also very important. But that would hardly justify advocates forcefully occupying several city blocks in a liberal city and using their control to limit emissions from diesel engines or other sources of climate changing pollution.
And it certainly would not justify a major in surrendering that portion of a city so that the criminals could have a "block party" or enjoy a "summer of love," as Durkan has done.
Similarly, millions of Americans feel very strongly about abortions, which many regard as actual murder of human beings, but that certainly would not make it legal for prof-life advocates - for what is typically regarded as a "conservative" cause - to seize control of a part of a conservative city.
Likewise, it would not and could not legally justify a mayor in refusing to take any corrective action because he - and perhaps a majority of his constituents - likewise believe very strongly in the pro-life or anti-abortion cause.
Decisions regarding law enforcement - whether it's taking back illegally occupied property on city streets or the CHAZ occupation of a buildings, or in stopping arson and looting - cannot depend on how popular a cause might be, even to a majority of the public, much less to a single city official, Banzhaf reminds us.
Unlawful Destructive Criminal Riots
More generally, he suggests that unlawful destructive criminal riots in many cities have resulted in major incidents of arson, widespread looting, destructive vandalism, physical harm to innocent individuals, other damage to property, and to a large extent a complete breakdown in social order, but police, the national guard, arrests (which have been few and far between), the threat of criminal fines, and pleas for calm and order from many have failed to deter those bent on engaging in crimes to make their point for a cause they believe in.
But there is a remedy for riots which could be helpful in this and other similar situations of unlawful - and especially felonious - criminal activities, suggests Banzhaf, who cites a few instances where it has been used.
Although arrests (with little threat of significant jail time) and small fines have generally be ineffective from discouraging those seeking to draw attention to causes by going far beyond their First Amendment rights to protest, and instead engaging in serious crimes against the public welfare and against completely innocent third parties, a major civil class action law suit for all the damages suffered by the hundreds of people adversely affected is much more likely to deter the criminals from engaging in such crimes in the future, suggests Banzhaf.
The law professor notes that. under the legal doctrine of "joint and several liability," any one person or business injured as a result of illegal occupation, criminal rioting, or similar unlawful activity can sue any one or more of the criminals (joint tort feasors) actively engaged in - and not just advocating, encouraging, or even organizing - criminally destructive and unlawful rioting for the total of all the damages caused, even if it is impossible to identify with specificity which criminal caused each specific instance of damage.
If the threat of arrests and possible fines for rioters who commit serious crimes which endanger or harm others isn't enough to deter them from engaging in criminal trespass, destruction of property, arson, looting, obstruction of traffic, destructive vandalism, and even physical attacks, perhaps it's time for a new remedy - civil law suits by one or more victims of such crimes - says Banzhaf.
Using Class Action Law Suits To Punish Criminals
The idea of using class action law suits to punish criminal activities and to deter such illegal wrongdoing is neither new nor strictly academic, notes Banzhaf.
For example, at least one law suit inspired by Banzhaf was brought on behalf of drivers effectively imprisoned (the tort of false imprisonment) by illegal blockages of the George Washington Bridge in New York City. Indeed, now that the Supreme Court just vacated the criminal sentences of two major conspirators, this still-pending civil action may be the only hope of bringing justice to the perpetrators, and of deterring such unlawful action for the future.
Banzhaf notes that civil law suits against those who commit criminal acts in concert with others - even those actions far less serious and less harmful than burning buildings and assaulting police or even blocking traffic - to try to advance their cause have also been successful in a number of notable instances
As early as 1988, a federal jury found two white supremacist groups - the Ku Klux Klan and the Southern White Knights - and 11 people responsible for the violent disruption of a 1987 civil rights march in Forsyth County, Ga., and awarded nearly $1 million in damages to the plaintiffs who filed the suit.
When other groups learn that the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has been forced to pay $2.55 million to Japanese companies for illegally using acid and smoke bombs to disrupt their whaling, they may think twice before blocking traffic or occupying buildings - much less engaging in widespread destruction - to advance their agenda, says Banzhaf, who has promoted the idea - and the very slogan - of "Suing the Bastards" when the law is broken.
In another example, a student who illegally chained himself to some construction equipment because he opposed an oil pipeline was forced to pay out big bucks for his criminal conduct. As NPR reported it, he was apparently ready to accept a relatively painless conviction for trespass, but not to pay the pipeline company $39,000 in restitution.
Similarly, eleven protesters who allegedly engaged in illegal activities at the Mall of American faced restitution claims from the City of Bloomington.
CHAZ Or Not: Criminal Protesters Are Willing To Accept A Small Fine
In these and many similar situations, criminal protesters are often willing to accept a small fine and a conviction for a chance to focus attention on their cause, especially if it means they get to have a criminal trial which can generate even more publicity for them and for their grievance, argues Banzhaf.
In contrast, a civil law suit, in which each and every participant can be sued for the entire amount of the damages under the legal principle of "joint and several liability," might serve as a much more effective deterrent than the minor threat of arrests and possible criminal prosecution, suggests Banzhaf.
While everyone has a constitutional right to protest in public, that right clearly does not extend to engaging in serious crimes to draw attention to a cause or grievance, no matter how important or righteous that cause may seem.
As illegal criminal protests by various groups continue to proliferate, causing serious harm to governmental bodies as well as to innocent third parties, those harmed may no longer be helpless, even when police refuse to take appropriate action and/or prosecutors decline to prosecute, and even when the individuals who actually caused specific harms cannot be conclusively identified, says Banzhaf.
Banzhaf, famous for developing novel and winning law suits - including over $12 million from McDonald's over its french fries, and Spiro Agnew to recover the money he took in bribes - has been called "a Driving Force Behind the Lawsuits That Have Cost Tobacco Companies Billions of Dollars," "The Law Professor Who Masterminded Litigation Against the Tobacco Industry," and an "Entrepreneur of Litigation, [and] a Trial Lawyer's Trial Lawyer."