‘Just Drive Them Around for a Bit’: WSP Officers May Have Violated Protestors’ First Amendment Rights on MLK Day

by Carolyn Bick

By the time the Washington State Patrol officers dropped her off in the parking lot of the Motel 6 in Sea-Tac on the afternoon of Jan. 18, Monsieree had been sitting in the patrol car for at least two hours, hands shackled behind her body, as the officers drove her up and down I-5, fruitlessly trying to find a jail within King County limits that would accept her despite current COVID-19 booking protocols. Monsieree and at least 11 others had been arrested a few hours earlier, just under the Yesler Overpass on I-5 near downtown Seattle. It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and the group had been carrying out a peaceful protest action centered around painting a Black Lives Matter mural and the names of Black people who lost their lives in police encounters on both the roadway itself and the wall beneath the overpass respectively. This action also briefly shut down the highway.

Rubbing her wrists, which hurt from the handcuffs, Monsieree asked why the Washington State Patrol (WSP) officers wouldn’t just drop her and others who had been protesting off in a group all together if the officers were ultimately unable to book them and had to release them. After all, some of them didn’t have the knowledge to get themselves home alone safely, they were dropped off nowhere near where they had been arrested, and none of them had any resources on them. Past arrests during protests had taught Monsieree and others not to carry anything on them, as they have had to jump through hoops to get their property back from the Seattle Police Department (SPD). Surely, Monsieree reasoned, it would make more sense to drop them off all together.

“It was to make sure that we ‘don’t do that again,’ is what my officer told me, because I saw someone else being released right at [the WSP station in Tukwila], and I was like, ‘Hey, why can’t I just be released with them? They have my car keys. We can go home together,’” Monsieree said. “And they were like, ‘No, we can’t release you all in the same place, in case you guys do this again.’”

Monsieree isn’t the only protestor who received this answer or who was driven up and down the highway as WSP officers searched for a jail into which to book protestors that sun-spotted Monday. Most of the other protestors who spoke with the Emerald recounted almost verbatim interactions with their arresting officers, with one protestor remembering his arresting officer saying, “to teach you a lesson so you don’t do this again.”

All the protestors the Emerald spoke with said that officers drove them up and down the highway, trying to find a jail that would book them. Since March 2020, King County’s jails have had limited bookings, in accordance with COVID-19 mitigation restrictions — generally speaking, the county’s jails are not supposed to be booking anyone for nonviolent misdemeanors or misdemeanors that do not present an imminent public safety threat.

Furthermore, when WSP officers were unable to book protestors in either the King County Jail (KCJ) in downtown Seattle or the Maleng Regional Justice Center (MRJC) in Kent that day, due to the aforementioned restrictions, they dropped off protestors in seemingly random locations in and around Tukwila.

If the reason the WSP officers decided not to drop off the protestors in a group was indeed to ensure they did not reassemble in order “to teach [them] a lesson” so they did not “do this again,” then the WSP apparently not only violated these protestors’ First Amendment right to Freedom of Speech but also directly violated their Freedom of Assembly.

Although, as mentioned above — according to a series of measures the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) announced in March 2020 — King County Jails are not generally booking anyone for alleged crimes that do not present an imminent public safety threat, these policies are not set in stone. As the Emerald previously reported, the policies have been overridden more than once by high-ranking officials within SPD.

On Jan. 18, WSP officers searched for a County jail that would book the protestors they had arrested that day, but to no avail. None of the jails, it seems, would accept the protestors. WSP Communications Director Chirs Loftis said in an email to the Emerald on Feb. 2 that, following the Jan. 18 arrests, “the intent was to book them into the King County Jail … [but] KCJ ultimately declined to accept the prisoners, which surprised WSP as KCJ is our primary option. … Arrestees were ultimately transported to our South Office [in Tukwila], processed, and released from there.”

He also noted that it was “the first time KCJ has refused to accept protestor related prisoners. Their Downtown or [Maleng Regional Justice Center] facilities are our only non WSP facility options,” but did not comment on protestors’ recollections of WSP officers driving them up and down the highway, apparently in search of other jails that would book the protestors.

Quamrade, another protestor arrested on Jan. 18, remembers that their patrol officer kept his radio on unusually loud and kept giving them updates.

“He kept giving me and the other individual in the back of his car updates — ‘Oh, god dammit, I guess they don’t know where to put you,’ or ‘I guess we are going back to SeaTac,’” Quamrade recalled. “I heard them say over their radios, literally: ‘Just drive them around for a bit, while we figure out where we can put them.’ Verbatim. I don’t know why that officer had his radio that loud and why he kept giving updates.” 

Quamrade estimated that this officer drove them and the other protestor around for nearly two hours, in an effort to find a jail that would take the pair.

Quamrade said the officer split them up upon release, leaving Quamrade alone in front of the Nordstrom at Tukwila’s Southcenter Mall. They asked their arresting officer why he wouldn’t just drop them off at a bus stop that would allow them to take the bus back into Seattle, or if the officer could help them make a phone call. If none of this were possible, Quamrade said, could the officer please just drop them off closer to Seattle?

“And he said, ‘I don’t work in Seattle. I work the other way.’ And I was like, ‘So why did you arrest me in Seattle?’” Quamrade said.

Lawyer Sarah Lippek, of Cedar Law, PLLC, who has been representing protestors injured and arrested in ongoing protests, said that while it’s true WSP does not work in Seattle, that is primarily in regards to arrests and detainment. This shouldn’t have prevented the WSP officer from dropping off Quamrade within the city limits.

Loftis said that while the WSP tries to be “respectful to individuals in what we know can be frustrating and stressful circumstances of arrest, there is no requirement nor can there be any reasonable assumption that we will always use public resources to transport them to places most convenient to their personal situations. Using public resources for personal accommodations is generally discouraged. We are required to transport those arrested to a place of safety, which to our knowledge we did.”

Quamrade also remembered their arresting officer saying something similar to what Monsieree’s arresting officer told her: They were being let go in a fairly random place, because the officers didn’t want the protestors “to do this again.” Like Monsieree and the other protestors to whom the Emerald spoke, Quamrade interpreted “this” as assembling to peacefully protest.

D.T., another protestor arrested that day, was one of the last people released, which meant he could hear WSP radio communications briefly mentioning where others had been released in and around Tukwila. This allowed him to help other protestors more easily locate their missing friends. D.T. was released in the WSP parking lot, and remembers his arresting officer telling him that they were all being dropped off in different locations “to — and I quote, verbatim — ‘to teach us a lesson, so we won’t do it again.’” 

Loftis said that the Emerald’s email was “the first claim we have received of arrestees being denied requests of being released together.” He continued, explaining that the WSP’s Tukwila station doesn’t have holding cells for mass arrests. He also said that the protestors would have been released “in the order they were processed, which for a number of them included the need to being (sic) finger printed.”

“Therefore, we released them in separate and safe locations because they weren’t all ready to be released at one time,” Loftis said. “However, we should note that even if that had been the case and all were finished with processing at the same time, releasing a large group at one time is avoided as it can create a security concern for our facility. Protestors can easily reengage in the criminal conduct that prompted their arrest in the first place.”

As for the multiple reports that officers appear to have violated protestors’ First Amendment rights, Loftis said that “[b]eing arrested is rarely a convenient experience; however, the decision to release them separately was never ‘to teach you a lesson’ or so they ‘didn’t do it again.’ If that was said by an arresting trooper, we would welcome the specifics and would thoroughly look into the complaint to determine appropriate action going forward. Without a specific allegation or complaint, we are not able to investigate the situation.”

He also said that WSP is “intentional in our efforts to protect the rights of free speech, assembly, and peaceful protests. However, as sacred as those rights are, they are not boundless. The boundary is illegal and unsafe behavior and releasing a large group together in an area not designed for the processing of high number arrest incidents could invite further illegal and unsafe behavior.”

In addition to concern that the officers had apparently violated their First Amendment rights, D.T. said he was genuinely worried about several of the people who were in the group.

“They dropped us off with nothing — and I will be comfortable, I will find my own way. But what really got me is … some of my friends that got arrested are 100-lb girls. And just dropping them off in a random place with no phone, no money, no way of getting anywhere is the antithesis of protecting the community,” D.T. said. “Would they do this to their sister or to their niece or to their daughter — just drop them off in the middle of nowhere and say, ‘Bye!’ to teach you a lesson, because they can’t take you to jail [because of] COVID?”

“It’s a good thing our friends and our community have a good network to canvass the area and find these people, because all it takes is one. … What if one person disappears?” D.T. continued. “We are fortunate it was during the day. Imagine if that had happened at 11 o’clock at night.”

Loftis said that if one of the protestors “was dropped off other than a place of safety, we would look into those concerns but as of today, no specific allegation has been made that that ‘may’ have occurred. We certainly welcome detail to any concerns to the contrary.” (Emphasis on “may” per Loftis.)

Monsieree told the Emerald in a later text message conversation that when she told the WSP officers who dropped her off in the Motel 6 parking lot that she had neither money, phone, nor any way to get home, the officers said that she shouldn’t have gotten arrested and that they were sure she could “figure it out.”

“[When I] asked if I could be charged for trespassing at Motel 6 for randomly being in their parking lot … [the WSP officers] said probably not, and suggested I ask to use the phone at Motel 6 to get a taxi home,” Monsieree said. “I reminded them I didn’t have any money.”

The officers left her in the parking lot anyway, along with another protestor WSP officers had dropped off at the same time. Monsieree and this other protestor went into the Motel 6 and explained the situation, but the motel employees said they couldn’t let Monsieree use the phone because of COVID restrictions. The Motel 6 manager on duty at the time confirmed that they remembered this interaction, in a Feb. 2 phone call with the Emerald.

Fortunately, Monsieree said, she is good with directions, and even though the WSP officers had “driven me around a little bit,” she was able to reorient herself and walk with her fellow protestor back up the street to the WSP station, which it turned out was just one block away. However, if she hadn’t been good with directions, she would not have known this, and could have been lost for hours, she said.

Once the pair reached the parking lot, they met up with a handful of others who had also found their way back to the WSP station’s parking lot. By the time Monsieree got there, she learned that someone had managed to summon help.

“Then the next hour or so was spent coordinated with each other trying to find out where everyone was released and literally just driving around random hotels and 7-Elevens in [T]ukwila in hopes we’d find and pick up all the other arrestees,” Monsieree said.

Robin, another protestor arrested that day, told the Emerald in a text message that she and the others still couldn’t find one protestor after an hour of driving around and looking for them, a situation that hearkens back to D.T.’s concern. Robin said she called the WSP to ask where this person was dropped off. 

In the course of the conversation, she also asked the officer why people were dropped in random locations around the city. Earlier, Robin’s arresting officer hadn’t told her why, even though she had asked him. Instead, she said, this officer had just repeated the assertion that he was releasing her “somewhere safe.”

Robin’s arresting officer had initially told her he would be dropping her off near the Southcenter Mall but instead “[d]rove me partway there, then asked if a random 7[-Eleven] would work. I told him at that point I had no preference. I asked him where everyone else would be released, and he just said he was unsure and gave me some vague answers.”

During her call to find out where the missing protestor had been released, the officer on the other end of the line claimed that everyone had been asked where they wanted to be dropped off. Loftis also said in his email to the Emerald that “[s]everal individuals specifically asked to be transported to the Southcenter area and troopers accommodated that request.”

“Which I absolutely know didn’t happen,” Robin said.

WSP officers were not consistent in the way they dealt with arrestees that day, either. Some of the protestors were taken into the WSP station in Tukwila, while others remained in the WSP cars. Some of them were released directly from the WSP station, while others were shuttled off to different places in and around Tukwila. 

Not even all of the arrested protestors were fingerprinted. Monsieree said that the officers told her that if she just told them her name, she wouldn’t need to be fingerprinted. But they took her photograph twice: once while they were sitting, masked, on the freeway — “[T]hey just went by and took pictures of each of us. Didn’t ask us to look at the camera. Just very candid.” — and then again when they were sitting in the WSP parking lot. Robin was also only photographed, but only once, in the WSP parking lot. Her arresting officer said they didn’t need to take her finger prints, since they already had recent prints in the system.

In contrast, Quamrade said their arresting officer took fingerprints from four of their fingers, while they sat inside the patrol car in the WSP parking lot. The officer also photographed Quamrade in the parking lot. D.T. said WSP officers tried three times to fingerprint him — making him get in and out of the WSP car each time, rather than just letting him stand outside — and photographed him both in the WSP vehicle on the highway and then again just before his release.

When the Emerald asked what usual WSP fingerprinting and photographing procedures are, Loftis did not directly answer the question in a follow-up Feb. 3 email. He said that, on Jan. 18, the WSP “utilized the resources of a King County deputy that was equipped with a portable AFIS unit for the fingerprinting. (Note, we do have a number of these issued to the WSP, but none of the troopers involved in this incident were equipped with one).”

“Not all prisoners required fingerprinting as they could be positively identified through other means. Only when an arrestee couldn’t be positively identified were they fingerprinted,” Loftis said. This would appear to counter at least Monsieree’s experience, because there is no way the officer would have known whether she was in the system for him to make a positive identification before taking her picture with her mask off, unless he knew who she was from the beginning and that she was in the system.

None of the protestors the Emerald spoke with received release papers detailing the charges on which they were arrested, and nothing has arrived for them in the mail, even though Robin said her arresting officer told her she would be getting something in the mail about these charges.

Even now, almost none of the protestors the Emerald spoke with know why they were arrested. Only Robin said she got a straight answer from an officer, who told her she was being arrested for misdemeanor disorderly conduct. This would not appear to justify a jail booking under COVID restrictions. Still, Robin said that her arresting officer drove her all the way down to the MRJC in Kent and back to the King County Jail in Seattle, before settling on the WSP station in Tukwila.

Loftis said that all protestors were arrested on a variety of charges, specifically “malicious mischief in the third degree,” disorderly conduct, and obstructing an officer. None of these are violent misdemeanors, but Loftis said in his Feb. 3 email that “WSP is well aware of the current booking restrictions with the King County Jail; however, in our view, blocking the freeway does create an imminent public safety threat.” He did not explain this further, but he also acknowledged that WSP officers “are fully aware that those we arrest will most likely be quickly released after being booked and processed based on the current jail standards.”

The Emerald asked why these protestors were not simply detained and moved away from the highway, a simple action that would appear to have eliminated the public safety threat the officers apparently perceived.

Loftis forwarded a response from WSP Capt. Ron Mead, which read, “The intentional disruption of traffic on a major freeway is not just illegal, it is extremely dangerous for the protestors, other motorists and first responders alike.”  

“This unsafe behavior amounts to criminal conduct which we will not allow to go unaddressed and will result in the arrest and booking of the individual and referral of criminal charges to the local prosecutor where we can do so safely, and regardless of the (sic) whether or not a jail may or may not hold an individual based on their booking restrictions and guidelines,” Mead’s message continued. “Our enforcement response is not solely about ending the immediate threat to public safety; it is also focused on allowing the legal processes designed to both appropriately sanction wrongdoers and dissuade the arrestee(s) or others from continuing the dangerous and criminal behavior in the future.”

But it appears the DAJD disagreed that the protestors presented an imminent public safety threat.

When asked why neither the KCJ nor the MRJC would accept the protestors, DAJD Communications Specialist Noah Haglund said in a Feb. 3 email to the Emerald that “[w]hen a jail captain asked Washington State Patrol dispatch whether the people detained on Jan. 18 posed an ongoing public safety concern, the answer was ‘no.’”

“Under the COVID booking restrictions, the jail does not accept people on most nonviolent misdemeanors if the arresting agency does not consider them an ongoing safety concern,” Haglund said.

Loftis said that all of these charges will be referred to the King County Prosecutor’s Office (KCPO) and that the primary officer on the case is still collecting reports and will be referring them to the office soon.

“The Prosecutor’s Office is aware the case(s) are coming. Given caseloads and higher priority cases, these types (sic) of cases can sometimes move more slowly through the system,” Loftis said.

The Emerald reached out to the KCPO to ask about these cases. KCPO Director of Communications Casey McNerthney said in emails to the Emerald between Feb. 2 and Feb. 4 that he checked with the staff who handle King County District Court, where those WSP cases would be referred to. None of the people interviewed in this story currently have charges against them, he said, and there are currently only two cases referred from the WSP for the Jan. 18 arrests.

“Overall there were 10–12 people mentioned in that WSP report for blocking the distributor lanes with an unclear number of vehicles assisting them,” McNerthney said. “There may be other cases coming in [that] do not yet appear in our system. ”

“Another person who handles District Court cases for our office also checked and didn’t see any additional cases in our internal system or in the queues to upload to the internal system. If WSP said they’ve sent additional cases, they may have other cases that are coming to us,” McNerthney continued.

However, in a previous Feb. 2 email and in his Feb. 3 email, McNerthney iterated that “[f]or Jan. 18 and overall in 2020 and 2021, we have not filed criminal charges against peaceful protesters and do not plan to.” 

“We see a distinction between people who are gathered to non-violently air grievances against their government and those who take advantage of the otherwise peaceful protest to commit acts of violence, victimize peaceful protesters, or commit acts of arson, property destruction and theft,” McNerthney said.

Carolyn Bick is a local journalist and photographer. As the Emerald’s Watchdragon reporter, they dive deep into local issues to keep the public informed and ensure those in positions of power are held accountable for their actions. You can reach them here and can check out their work here and here.

Featured image shows protestors carrying out a peaceful protest action on I-5 under the Yesler Overpass in Seattle, Washington, on Jan. 18, 2020. Image used with permission, courtesy of the original photographer, @qaznable on Instagram.

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