Ninth Circuit Rules Seattle Not Liable for CHOP Zone Death

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the City of Seattle is not liable to the mother of a 19-year-old special needs man who was shot and killed in the CHOP zone in 2020. Donnitta Sinclair claimed the city’s conduct in allowing protesters to create the CHOP zone, and the failure of Seattle firefighters and police officers to immediately respond in to the CHOP zone, caused the death of her son, Horace Lorenzo Anderson, Jr. Here is coverage of the original filing of the lawsuit.

The suit alleged the city and responders acted with deliberate indifference and were negligent. As explained by the Ninth Circuit:

  • In the summer of 2020, Seattle residents joined nationwide protests following George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis. Sinclair’s allegations against the City are astounding.
  • On June 8, 2020, as confrontations escalated between protestors and police officers, the City withdrew all police officers from the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct building, which served the Capitol Hill neighborhood.
  • Protesters used barricades left behind by the Seattle Police Department to block traffic and “seized a roughly sixteen-block area of Capitol Hill, including Cal Anderson Park.”
  • They declared it to be autonomous from City governance, calling it the CHOP zone.
  • Sinclair alleges that CHOP participants were seen carrying guns at all hours and that violence, vandalism of homes and businesses, open drug use, and other crimes proliferated in the now lawless area.
  • According to Sinclair, the City did not have an effective plan to provide police protection or emergency services in the CHOP zone, but instead it provided occupiers with portable toilets, lighting, and other support, including modifying emergency response protocols of SPD and the Seattle Fire Department.
  • On June 11, 2020, SPD Chief Carmen Best allegedly admitted that “response times for crimes in progress were over 15 minutes, about three times as long as the average.”
  • That same day, in an interview with CNN, Mayor Jenny Durkan labeled CHOP a “block party” and characterized the events as a “summer of love.”
  • Councilmember Kshama Sawant also publicly described CHOP as a “peaceful” occupation even after it became violent.
  • Sinclair is the mother of Horace Lorenzo Anderson, Jr., a nineteen-year-old with special needs.
  • On or about June 20, Anderson visited CHOP and encountered Marcel Long. The two had a history of antagonism.
  • According to Sinclair, Long believed CHOP was a “no-cop” zone, and he was carrying a gun. After speaking with each other, Long pulled out the gun.
  • Anderson then walked away while Long was briefly held back by others.
  • According to Sinclair, Long broke away and caught up to Anderson, shooting him at least four times.
  • CHOP participants carried Anderson to a “medical tent” they had erected in an outdoor area just outside of Cal Anderson Park.
  • Anderson apparently had a pulse when they laid him down on a table.
  • SFD allegedly had an ambulance staged just a block and a half from Anderson’s location.
  • A man implored the paramedics to help Anderson, but the medics were apparently waiting for a green light from SPD; meanwhile, SPD was confused about the paramedics’ location.
  • The miscommunication caused a response delay of around 20 minutes before first responders finally arrived to treat Anderson.
  • By the time police and fire officials entered the area, CHOP participants had transported Anderson to nearby Harborview Medical Center in a pick-up truck where he was pronounced dead at 2:53 a.m.

The trial court dismissed Sinclair’s suit, prompting the appeal to the Ninth Circuit. In explaining why the Ninth Circuit upheld the trial court, here is a quote (with quotation marks and citations removed to facilitate reading):

  • The Civil Rights Act codified in 42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides a cause of action against state officials who deprive a plaintiff of her federal constitutional rights.
  • Sinclair alleges that the City violated her Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process right to companionship with her son by creating an actual and particularized danger to him and by acting with deliberate indifference towards saving his life.
  • Although we have never expressly expounded on the question, we have recognized implicitly that parents maintain a constitutionally protected liberty interest in the companionship of their adult children
  • [Sinclair] alleges that the City violated her right to the companionship of her son by violating his right to be free from state-created danger.
  • Generally, members of the public have no constitutional right to sue state [actors] who fail to protect them against harm inflicted by third parties.
  • One exception to that rule is the state-created danger doctrine, under which the state may be constitutionally required to protect a plaintiff that it affirmatively places in danger by acting with deliberate indifference to a known or obvious danger.
  • To succeed on a state-created danger claim, a plaintiff must establish that (1) a state actor’s affirmative actions created or exposed him to an actual, particularized danger [that he] would not otherwise have faced (2) that the injury he suffered was foreseeable, and (3) that the state actor was deliberately indifferent to the known danger.
  • The district court was correct, however, in holding that Sinclair’s allegations about the City’s response after Anderson had been shot do not show deliberate indifference.
  • Sinclair does not dispute that medics tried to provide Anderson care and that the City did not prohibit them from doing so.
  • And she agrees that their delayed response stemmed from a miscommunication about whether they were approved to enter the CHOP zone.
  • Indeed, SFD had even positioned an ambulance a block and a half away from the CHOP medical tent where Anderson was carried.
  • Had the City been deliberately indifferent to Anderson’s particular plight, they would have ignored CHOP participants’ pleas for help altogether. They did no such thing.
  • In sum, while the City created an actual danger of increased crime, that danger was not specific to Anderson or Sinclair. Thus, Sinclair’s § 1983 claim fails.
  • The City’s conduct here was egregious. But because the City’s actions were not directed toward Anderson and did not otherwise expose him to a specific risk, the connection between Sinclair’s alleged injuries and the City’s affirmative actions is too remote to support a § 1983 claim.
  • It is at the ballot box, then, that Sinclair and other Seattleites must hold the City accountable for their deliberately indifferent actions.

Here is a copy of the decision:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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