Over the past week, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office (CAO) has taken 26-year-old Aidan Carroll to court over a case of alleged obstruction of a police officer. The trial blew up in Republican City Attorney Ann Davison’s face when, after more than seven hours of deliberations, it resulted in a hung jury and a mistrial on Jan. 26. On the morning of Jan. 29, citing limited resources and issues with proof, the CAO quickly dismissed the case with prejudice, meaning it can’t be tried again.
The case centered on an April 27, 2023, sweep of an RV in SODO. That morning, Seattle Parking Enforcement was assigned to clear Utah Avenue South of vehicles, including that of RV resident Jenesse Forler. Carroll and a handful of other community members showed up to support Forler with the relocation of her home. But there was a problem: One of her four tires was flat and needed a replacement.
Three Seattle police officers were at the scene, ostensibly to protect city staff and contractors. A worker from the Vehicle Resident Outreach program was dispatched to go get a new tire for Forler, but the SPD officers told her and the handful of Stop the Sweeps activists on the scene that time was running out. Parking Enforcement contractors hitched a tow truck to the RV and seemed poised to begin impounding the vehicle.
In a bodycam video shown during the trial, Carroll could be seen talking on the phone to the RV outreach worker and telling the officers a new tire was just two minutes away. But once the tow truck was connected to the RV, Carroll suddenly climbed onto a built-in metal ladder on the back of the vehicle. Police officers then grabbed Carroll’s legs and repeatedly asked him to come down, leading to a 12-minute standoff. After it became clear to Carroll the cops would not allow the tire to be installed and that Forler’s home would be impounded anyway, he climbed down and surrendered himself to the officers. Carroll was charged with a misdemeanor offense of obstruction of a police officer but not booked into the King County jail due to a lack of capacity.
Assistant city prosecutor Joshua Shea argued that Carroll’s actions posed a safety risk to himself and others. Furthermore, Shea said Carroll obstructed SPD officers and city staff, interfering with their job responsibilities.
Carroll’s lawyers Sam Sueoka and Jaclyn Tani argued in court that his actions amounted to civil disobedience and did not constitute a significant safety risk. They poked holes in the city’s assertions that officers felt unsafe, including the defense that three police officers felt outnumbered by the four civilians who were on the scene.
The defense team also argued that the trial was not actually about Carroll but rather Seattle’s approach to addressing homelessness.
“This case is about the way this city treats unhoused people and the people who care for them,” Sueoka said during opening statements.
Sueoka and Tani further stressed Carroll’s credentials as a dedicated advocate for unsheltered people’s rights, stating that he has provided support at more than 100 sweeps over the years.
“It is one thing to say you care,” Tani said during closing statements. “It is another thing to dedicate every waking moment to standing up for others.”
After the dismissal, Carroll told Real Change that he thought the case was politically motivated and aimed at discouraging activists like him.
“They were trying to make an example of me in the sense that they don’t want people to do anything like what I did. [Anything] that delays them and makes their expensive harassment [to unhoused people] even more expensive,” Carroll told Real Change after the case got dismissed.
On Twitter, The Stranger reporter Ashley Nerbovig wrote that public defenders thought it was unusual for such a small case to go to trial. Throughout the three-day trial, dozens of Carroll’s fellow activists and supporters attended the courtroom to show him moral support.
Joy R., another activist with Stop the Sweeps, said the case was ultimately about intimidating activists who show up to support unhoused people. She said the officers involved in the case were very familiar with Carroll and acted in a biased way toward him.
“I feel like this was an attempt by the police department, by the city workers, Parks and Rec, SDOT — all the different city groups [that] are involved in sweeps — to target, to intimidate … [anyone who] shows any type of humanity, compassion or support to people,” Joy said.
Real Change previously reported that the city of Seattle conducted more than 900 sweeps of unhoused people in 2022. According to the King County Medical Examiner’s Office, 415 people experiencing homelessness died across the county in 2023, a 34% increase over the previous year.
Following hours of deliberations, the six-person jury ended with division, with four jurors supporting a “not guilty” verdict and two supporting a “guilty” one. The split was along gender lines, with the women siding with not guilty and the men siding with guilty.
After the trial, jurors Chelsea Anderson and Maya Yandell told Real Change that they couldn’t rule that Caroll posed a significant risk beyond a reasonable doubt.
“Those of us who [voted] not guilty felt that there was not enough evidence … that these actions [met] the definition of obstruction and created a significant risk of harm to an individual,” Yandell said.
Anderson and Yandell added that regardless of their position, all six of the jurors thought Carroll’s actions were “morally just.”
Anderson thought the whole case potentially could have been avoided if the police officers had allowed Forler more time to replace her flat tire.
“It’s an alternate reality where maybe they said, ‘OK, we’ll give you a half-hour, and then we’ll reassess,’” she said.
Read more of the Jan. 31–Feb. 6, 2024 issue.