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Police says they’ll stop harassing pot supporters

UPDATED: Thu., Dec. 8, 2011, 6:35 p.m.

SEATTLE — King County authorities and the Washington State Public Stadium Authority have agreed to stop harassing people collecting signatures outside the Seahawks football stadium for an initiative that would legalize and tax recreational marijuana in the state.

One of the collectors, Benjamin Schroeter, was arrested Nov. 13 after he refused an order to stop collecting signatures for Initiative 502 in a public area outside the stadium where fans were tailgating. The King County prosecutor’s office declined to file charges, but the sheriff’s office didn’t return his petitions until Wednesday.

Another gatherer, campaign staffer Tonia Winchester, said she and others were threatened with arrest and kicked out of the north parking lot at the stadium for collecting signatures before the Nov. 26 Apple Cup game between Washington and Washington State.

Sheriff’s deputies responded to complaints about the signature gathering from parking attendants, and took down the group’s signs without asking, Winchester said.

Schroeter and Winchester sued the county, the Public Stadium Authority, and First and Goal Inc., the private operator of the stadium, claiming their First Amendment rights had been violated. In a stipulation filed Thursday, the sheriff’s office and stadium officials did not admit wrongdoing but agreed that law enforcement officials, parking attendants and others would allow the signature gathering at least through the end of the year.

Representatives of the sheriff’s office, stadium authority, and First and Goal did not immediately returned calls seeking comment Thursday.

The complaint alleged that the north parking lot is obviously a public forum: it is owned by the stadium authority, was built with public money, and anyone can walk through it at any time.

Allowing fans of certain teams to express their viewpoint while suppressing the speech of marijuana legalization activists is a constitutional violation, the lawsuit said.

Schroeter, who was being paid to collect the signatures, said in a court document that he was walking among tailgating fans and asking if anyone was interested in signing the petition when event staff approached him and told him he had to leave. He disagreed, and told them to go find a police officer who would verify his rights to collect signatures in the public area.

He said a handful of deputies told him he had to leave. He asked to see their supervisor — Sgt. Luis Caballero — but Schroeter fared no better with him.

“Caballero arrived and told me I was trespassing on private property,” Schroeter wrote. “I again stated that this was public property and that I had every right to collect signatures there. … I then politely told Sgt. Caballero that I was not going anywhere, and held out my hands for him to place handcuffs on.”

Schroeter spent the night in jail.

Alison Holcomb, campaign director for New Approach Washington, the group pushing the initiative, said she was thankful that Schroeter and Winchester were willing to speak up on behalf of “anybody that’s trying to get a contentious issue in front of the voters.”

The group must collect 241,000 valid signatures by the end of the year to send their measure to the Legislature.

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