Two new lawsuits were filed against the Sitka Police Department this spring, both alleging that the department arbitrarily applied enforcement powers that it does not have under federal law, in one case, and under municipal code in another.
KCAW’s Robert Woolsey recently met with retired attorney Galen Paine to discuss Baranoff Taxi vs. Police Chief Robert Baty, which was filed in Sitka Superior Court in April, and Ron Dick vs. City of Sitka and the Sitka Police Department, which was filed in US District Court in Anchorage in March.
They began by talking about why a Sitka resident would sue his local police in federal court.
Paine: “I’m just gonna say that they chose to take it into federal court and talk about the Americans for Disability Act. I mean, the facts relate to the fact that Ron Dick, who is bringing the suit, had a specially made-out golf cart because he’s a Vietnam vet. He’s old, and he’s very disabled. He had it imported into Sitka, according to the complaint, and he has been running it (according to the complaint) on Sitka streets for three years. What happened is that he was at a medical appointment at SEARHC and was stopped by a police officer. Mr. Dick explained that he had permission from the Department of Transportation and the troopers that he could run this vehicle on the road. And he could drive it in Sitka. He was told by the police officers that he was not allowed to do that. And the officer stated that he was ‘following orders.’ And he was not allowed to drive it home and was threatened with arrest. He is, according to the complaint, severely disabled enough so that if he were arrested he might suffer additional disability.”
(Note: The events which prompted Ron Dick’s lawsuit were first submitted in a formal complaint to the Alaska Commission for Human Rights, which determined on March 8, 2023, that there was “no evidence of unlawful discriminatory practice” and dismissed case. Read the full determination. Additionally, on the same day this story was published (6-5-23) the City of Sitka filed a reply to Dick’s lawsuit, asking the court for summary judgment on the grounds that “there’s no support whatsoever for his interpretation of federal law.” Read the city’s full reply.)
KCAW: “And so this relates to the Baranoff Taxi case, somewhat, because it’s also a matter of interpretation as well.”
Paine: “Actually, yes. And in fact, this is in state court, and the complaint there Baranoff Taxi & Tours vs. Robert Baty. So he’s being sued individually here.”
KCAW: “That’s our police chief.”
Paine: “What happened is, they had been running a taxicab service for a while and a tour business. But Police Chief Baty said that they couldn’t provide both taxi and tour services, and that she was going to be required to produce seven different kinds of requested items, which she did. And Chief Baty refused to issue the renewal and listed 14 more items that she had to provide. But in any case, under the Sitka ordinances, there is no requirement that these items — these many items — be provided. The problem with the ordinance is that the police chief may require basically any information he wants, quote ‘information as the police chief may require.’ That’s a very, very open-ended part of the ordinance. And it doesn’t tell the average person what they’re going to have to produce. I would like to caution people that I’ve not seen the (city’s response), and I’m sure the city is going to come back with some some good reasons why this is incorrect. But I mean, there’s always two sides to a story. But also there’s nothing in the ordinances that distinguishes the fact between a cab company and a tour company. And I mean, they’re questioning why they need special equipment for a tour company versus a taxi cab company.”
KCAW: “Galen, just sort of knitting it up. In both these cases, Ron Dick vs. City of Sitka and Baranoff Taxi vs. Police Chief Robert Baty, there’s this idea that the police department is exercising discretion that it may not have. In the one case with Ron Dick, it’s an alleged violation of the Americans with Disability Act. And in the case of Baranoff Taxi, they’re just alleging that Chief Baty is making up rules on the fly. Is court a good place to resolve these kinds of things in general?”
Paine: “Actually, yes, because they both involve interpretations of local law. And particularly in with respect to the taxi, they’re alleging that the ordinances are not clear. And that would be a local issue with respect to the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). There are jurisdictions, for example, that allow these golf carts — these these nice golf carts — on the streets. And so that’s probably not the issue federally. The issue, of course, is when you have somebody who is disabled and can’t get easily to places normal people can get to — that’s when maybe a look at the city ordinances might be useful.”
That was retired attorney Galen Paine has worked as a lawyer all over Alaska. She lives in Sitka now, and serves on the board of KCAW.
Plaintiffs in both cases are represented by the Northern Justice Project, which has brought suit against the Sitka Police Department on three different occasions since 2018, and won over $800,000 in settlements for its clients.