Judge dismisses lawsuit against Portland, DA over demonstrator’s 2020 death

By April Ehrlich (OPB)
Sept. 3, 2022 10:23 p.m.

A judge on Thursday dismissed a lawsuit against the city of Portland stemming from the killing of Aaron “Jay” Danielson after a 2020 pro-Trump rally in downtown Portland.

The suit, filed last year, blamed Danielson’s death on the city’s “dereliction of duty” as well as the “decision by Multnomah County leadership in declining to enforce public safety laws during demonstrations in Portland’s downtown core.”

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The lawsuit was filed by Danielson’s estate against the city, Mayor Ted Wheeler and Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt.

In July, U.S. Magistrate Judge Youlee Yim You argued that Schmidt is protected by prosecutorial immunity, which prevents prosecutors from being sued for injuries caused by their official actions. In this case, You said Schmidt couldn’t be sued for deciding not to prosecute certain cases.

U.S. District Judge Michael Simon accepted You’s recommendation, dismissing the case Thursday.

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The case stems from a confrontation between protestors on Aug. 29, 2020, amid Portland’s more-than 100 nights of racial justice protest. Danielson was walking near a parking garage with a friend after a Trump rally, when another man — Michael Reinoehl — emerged from the garage, holding a gun. Video footage shows Danielson charging Reinoehl, then Reinoehl firing two rounds. Danielson died at the scene. Officers with a U.S. Marshals task force in Washington killed Reinoehl days later.

A man uses a truck to drive into and through anti-fascist counterprotesters at a pro-Trump caravan through Portland, Ore., Aug. 29, 2020.

A man uses a truck to drive into and through anti-fascist counterprotesters at a pro-Trump caravan through Portland, Ore., Aug. 29, 2020.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Danielson’s killing marked a climax of violence following several protests marred by clashes between opposing groups. In mid-July 2020, Wheeler and Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell advised officers to avoid engaging with the crowds “unless a life safety situation develop[ed],” according to You’s legal recommendation. Months later, Portland police blamed their lack of intervention on a new Oregon law designed to reduce untargeted police violence against crowds.

Attorney Christopher L. Cauble, who represented Danielson’s estate, argued that this “hands-off approach” allowed vigilantism to proliferate, and the situation was made worse by city leadership broadcasting this approach to the public. In his legal complaint, Cauble said the city didn’t use appropriate crowd-control tactics, such as diverting the Trump rally caravan away from downtown to avoid a clash between opposing groups. Video captured that evening showed Portland police directing vehicles in the pro-Trump rally into the downtown area rather than away from it.

“Instead of self-policing, this environment fostered a culture of vigilante policing between opposing factions, which filled the void created by a lack of actual policing,” Cauble wrote.

While much of his complaint focused on Wheeler and city leadership, he named Schmidt as another defendant because of his policy to “presumptively decline to prosecute cases that don’t involve deliberate property damage, theft, or threat of force against another person,” and broadcasting that policy to the public.

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