A Clover Park High School teacher was exercising free speech out of concern for a student when she criticized a Lakewood police detective arresting the teen, her lawyer contends.
City prosecutors counter that Catherine Peterson interfered with the arrest and have charged her with obstructing a law enforcement officer. She pleaded not guilty to the charge Tuesday in Lakewood Municipal Court.
“Ms. Peterson was well within her First Amendment rights to inquire of the officer why he was arresting the student, and later, after the student was handcuffed in the patrol car, to tell the officer that she intended to notify his supervisor about how he handled the situation,” said David Whedbee, Peterson’s attorney.
The case stems from an incident March 5 at the high school when detective Reynaldo Punzalan arrested a student involved in a fight. The detective said Peterson, 28, interfered to the extent that he had to push her back.
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Punzalan’s report gives this account:
While working off-duty as a school resource officer, he heard about a fight between two students at the Clover Park Pool, 11023 Gravelly Lake Drive SW.
By the time he got there, other adults had separated the pair and locked a 14-year-old student outside.
The teen — who Punzalan said was about 6 foot 1 and 210 pounds — was hitting a glass window by the door and swearing, like he was angry at someone inside. Punzalan told the student to go to the office, and the teen responded with profanity.
The detective moved his car between the teen and the sidewalk, but forgot to put it in park. The car slowly rolled and the door hit the teen in the leg.
Once he stopped the car, Punzalan told the student to put his hands on the hood. The teen refused and asked why he was being arrested.
That’s when Peterson started to yell at the detective, asking what he was doing, and saying the student was a child.
“I’m an educated woman and I know his rights!” he said he remembered her saying.
The detective told her to move away or she would be arrested because he was arresting the student. She stayed within an arm’s length, and he pushed her away.
Punzalan said Peterson told him she was going to complain to his supervisor, which he said was fine.
He said he forced the teen to the ground, pinned him and then handcuffed him. Peterson was “berating” him during this as well, he said.
He said he told the teen to get up, and when he said he couldn’t, the detective “applied a wrist compliance hold to force (the student) to stand under his own power.”
“My urgency to resolve the situation because of the interference by Peterson furthered my resolve to quickly take (the student) into custody,” Punzalan wrote.
After his arrest, the student was taken to the Remann Hall juvenile detention center. Peterson was arrested after the incident, read her Miranda rights and released.
Peterson’s lawyer gave a slightly different version of events in a letter to the city prosecutor:
“From all accounts I’ve read thus far (except perhaps Officer Punzalan’s), Ms. Peterson was surprised when Officer Punzalan went hands-on with the student, as were many other on-lookers. ...
“Officer Punzalan directed her back, and Ms. Peterson complied.”
Then she told the student to comply, Whedbee wrote.
As he drove away with the student, Punzalan rolled the car window down and Peterson told him she didn’t like how he handled the incident and planned to contact his boss, the lawyer said.
“To charge her with criminal conduct will chill speech by teachers who in good faith believe they are trying to serve their students and watch out for their well-being,” he wrote.
Prosecutors offered Peterson an option such as community service or counseling to avoid charges, if she didn’t break any other laws.
“Ms. Peterson didn’t want to do this, because there are important principles at stake, and she feels very strongly that she did nothing wrong,” Whedbee told The News Tribune.
Police spokesman Chris Lawler said Peterson was one of six witnesses to the arrest police interviewed in an investigation of the matter. Punzalan was exonerated of any wrongdoing.
He had been taken off his school resource officer duties during the review but was told Tuesday he could resume them. He has chosen to work at schools other than Clover Park High, Lawler said.
Punzalan has been with Lakewood police for 10 years and before that was a school resource officer for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, Lawler said.
It’s not clear whether the student taken to Remann Hall was charged in connection with the fight.
The Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office said the case was sealed, which precludes them from acknowledging that court records exists, or saying why the case was sealed.