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Court ruling lets Seattle police officers proceed with lawsuit against council member

The officers claim a council member defamed them by referring to a fatal police shooting as “a blatant murder”


By Lewis Kamb
The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — A federal court ruling will allow two Seattle police officers to proceed with their lawsuit claiming that City Councilmember Kshama Sawant defamed them when she publicly called their 2016 fatal shooting of Che Taylor “a blatant murder at the hands of police.”

The ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reverses an earlier dismissal of the case, reinstates the claims of Officers Michael Spaulding and Scott Miller, and sends their case back to a federal court in Seattle.

U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman had dismissed Spaulding’s and Miller’s third amended complaint in December 2020, after ruling it had failed to adequately claim that Sawant’s remarks were “of and concerning” them.

Pechman based the dismissal on the fact that Sawant didn’t identify the officers by name when the council member decried the shooting during a rally five days afterward outside the Seattle Police Department.

In the 28-page opinion issued Wednesday, the appeals court panel reversed Pechman’s ruling, holding that “Sawant’s own words suggested that her remarks were directed not only at the police generally, but also at the individual officers involved in the shooting.”

While Sawant didn’t name them, the officers’ family, friends, colleagues and members of the public “knew that Plaintiffs were the officers involved in the shooting” and “plausibly ... understood that Sawant’s remarks were directed” at them, the panel ruled.

As part of the ruling, the appeals court denied the officers’ request to have the case assigned to another judge, and sent the case back to Pechman’s court.

Neither Sawant, who is named as a co-defendant with the city of Seattle, nor the city attorney’s office could be reached for comment over the weekend.

Daniel Brown, an attorney representing the officers, said in an email his clients were “very pleased with the ruling from the 9th Circuit Panel, which was the correct one, and they look forward to having their day in court and having Ms. Sawant finally answer to the claims asserted against her in this matter.”

The two officers were surveilling a Wedgwood home in search of another man on Feb. 21, 2016, when Taylor arrived in a car, according to police and testimony at an inquest hearing into Taylor’s death.

One of the officers said he saw a handgun on Taylor’s hip. Taylor left the area, but when he returned later, the officers, in plain clothes and armed with a shotgun and a rifle, approached him after he had exited a car. The officers said they planned to arrest Taylor for being a felon in possession of a gun. The officers shot him, they said, when they saw him reach for what they believed was the gun.

But evidence developed during the inquest and through a civil lawsuit filed by Taylor’s family raised questions about whether Taylor was armed and why he would have been reaching for a gun he wasn’t carrying. The only weapon found at the scene, a handgun, was found under debris beneath the passenger seat of the vehicle Taylor had been in.

The city settled the family’s lawsuit in December 2020 for $1.5 million.

The Police Department previously ruled the shooting fell within department policy and King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg declined to file criminal charges against Spaulding and Miller, saying they perceived their lives were in danger as they tried to arrest Taylor. An inquest jury also found the two white officers believed Taylor, who was Black, posed a threat of death or serious injury when he was shot.

Spaulding and Miller first filed their lawsuit in 2017, alleging Sawant’s statements damaged their reputations. The case was initially filed in state court but refiled in federal court the following year.

When she dismissed the officers’ third amended complaint last year, Pechman said in her order the officers had been given four chances, through amended pleadings and a previous appeal to the 9th Circuit appeals court, to prove their allegations but failed. Any further efforts, the judge said, would harm Sawant. In turn, Pechman dismissed the complaint with prejudice, meaning it could not be refiled.

Seattle Times staff reporter Heidi Groover contributed to this report.

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