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The Times' criminal justice team looks behind the scenes and behind the headlines.

June 6, 2011 at 9:25 AM

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Seattle police officer pleads not guilty to assault charge

Posted by John de Leon

Raw video | Surveillance video of SPD officer kicking suspect

-- From Times staff reporter Jennifer Sullivan:

James J. Lee, the Seattle police officer charged with fourth-degree assault after repeatedly kicking a teenage suspect inside a convenience store, pleaded not guilty Monday morning during his arraignment in Seattle Municipal Court.

The City Attorney's Office asked Municipal Court Judge Michael Hurtado to forbid Lee from possessing personal firearms when off-duty. Hurtado denied the motion and only ordered Lee to follow Police Department policies regarding personal weapons collections.

Several Police Department homicide detectives attended Monday's hearing to support Lee, whose next scheduled court hearing will be in August.

The assault charge stems from an Oct. 18 incident in Joe's Mart in downtown Seattle, which was captured on surveillance video. In the video, Lee is seen kicking an African-American teen suspected of trying to rob an undercover narcotics officer. The teen, Dvontaveous Hoston, was later exonerated when he was acquitted of first-degree attempted robbery.

The City Attorney's Office filed the charge against Lee in April after reviewing an independent investigation by the State Patrol, which was brought into the case at the request of Seattle Police Chief John Diaz. The charge is a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and up to a $5,000 fine.

Lee's attorney, Peter Offenbecher, of Seattle, has said his client is innocent. Sgt. Rich O'Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers' Guild, has also defended Lee, saying he was following accepted training practices.

The encounter between Lee and Hoston, who was 17 at the time and has since turned 18, happened shortly after Seattle police were attacked while conducting a narcotics buy-bust operation.

Police said an undercover officer seeking to buy crack cocaine was taken to a parking lot and surrounded by a small group, where one man demanded money and punched the officer. The undercover officer and a second officer were injured.

Lee, who had watched the buy-bust operation from a short distance away, chased people who ran after the undercover officer was hit.

On the video, Hoston can be seen inside the store with his hands in the air as Lee approaches him. Lee then kicks at the teen's groin area. After Hoston falls to the floor, Lee kicks him in the torso and then the head before another officer moves in and handcuffs the teen.

Three men charged with attempted robbery in connection with the same incident also were acquitted. One of the men was found guilty of third-degree assault of a police officer, and another defendant earlier pleaded guilty to a drug charge after prosecutors agreed to drop an attempted-robbery charge.

Lee, 42, is the first officer to be charged with a crime arising from a series of incidents in the past year that has prompted the U.S. Justice Department to open a formal civil-rights investigation into the Police Department's use of force and its treatment of minorities.

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