Unjust arrest leads law student to work for public defense

April 28, 2014

Phil ChinnPhil Chinn used to fight the establishment by blocking military vehicles at ports throughout Puget Sound. Now he's working for social justice from a different angle, as a law student.

Law school might seem like an unusual place for a rebel. But Chinn's experiences as an active anti-war protestor — including a false arrest by state police and the discovery of a double agent among his anarchist buddies — led him directly to Seattle University School of Law.

As an undergraduate at Evergreen State College during the height of public opposition to the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Chinn attended protests organized by a group called Port Militarization Resistance. They regularly marched at ports in Tacoma and Olympia, sometimes even physically blocking access to the port gates with their bodies and barricades.

"We wanted to show people that the war wasn't just 'over there,' that it was also right here, close to home," he said. They knew they couldn't stop military vehicles and machinery from being shipped overseas. "But we could slow them down."

On May 6, 2007, Chinn was driving four friends to a protest at a port in Aberdeen when they noticed three state patrol cars perched on an overpass. As soon as he drove by, all three cars descended onto the highway and followed him. Though he kept the car at exactly 55 miles per hour and stayed in his lane, he was soon pulled over.

The state trooper accused him of driving erratically and asked him to take a field sobriety test. Though he blew a zero on the breathalyzer, the trooper arrested him anyway, alleging that his eyes were bloodshot and he must be high on marijuana or some other drug.

While in the trooper's car, on the way to jail in Grays Harbor County for blood tests, Chinn noticed something strange. There was a picture of his parents' car, a Ford Explorer, on the dashboard. It was the car he had just been driving the day before when his own car was in the shop. Clearly, this stop wasn't just bad luck — the police had been searching for him.

A month later, Chinn's blood tests came back clean, and his DUI charge was eventually dismissed with prejudice. Chinn sued in federal court for false arrest and rejected the state patrol's first settlement offer of $10,000.

Meanwhile, a friend from the protest movement was diligently collecting Olympia police records through the Freedom of Information Act and discovered that someone within their own ranks, a protester known to them as John Jacobs, was actually John Towery, a civilian employee in the Army's intelligence unit.

Towery had infiltrated Port Militarization Resistance for the purpose of providing information about the protesters and their movements to various law enforcement agencies. Suddenly, Chinn's case gained increased significance — it was no longer about an unjustified traffic stop; it was about the federal government spying on U.S. citizens.

"Once that came out, the lawsuit got more intense," Chinn said. "The ACLU joined on. The federal government got involved." A spokesperson for Washington State Patrol told the Seattle Weekly in 2010 that the Chinn's traffic stop wasn't politically motivated, but acknowledged that they had received a request from Aberdeen police to locate Chinn's car, carrying "known anarchists." (Read more about Chinn's case on the ACLU website.)

Chinn eventually settled the case with the state patrol, Grays Harbor County, and the city of Aberdeen for $169,000. After several months of carefree living and travel, he decided to use that money for law school, as a way to help people on the wrong side of the law, as he had once been.

He chose Seattle University School of Law for its commitment to social justice as well as its collaborative atmosphere.

"I was able to retain a lawyer. But I could easily see an overworked public defender not wanting to spend a lot of time on a case like mine and just wanting me to plead," he said. "Everyone deserves good representation."

He came to law school with an interest in public defense that has only grown stronger with time and experience. He spent the summer of 2013 interning with the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia and currently works as an extern at The Defender Association in Seattle. He also serves as a research assistant for Professor from Practice Bob Boruchowitz, a renowned public defense expert.

"I'm always reminded just how unequal the justice system can be. A lot of times it looks like police can just do whatever they want and the courts will back them up," he said. "Public defenders are a safeguard against that."

While in law school, he has also been active with the National Lawyers Guild, because a Guild attorney took his case against the police. He calls the Guild "the leftist voice of the law" and has organized various events on campus about how lawyers can support the activist movement.

"Lawyers can be a big part of social change," he said. "They shouldn't direct it, but they can support it."