In the Cause of Trent Yohe

Center sues Spokane County and three deputies over a death in the Valley.

Spokane County and three sheriff’s deputies are named defendants in a federal lawsuit filed by the Center for Justice on behalf of Trent Yohe, a county resident who died on May 12, 2007, following a violent altercation with sheriff’s deputies eleven days earlier.

The complaint alleges that Mr. Yohe’s federal constitutional rights were violated and that the County is also liable under state wrongful death and personal injury statutes.

The allegations against the county and the deputies-Scott Bonney, Mike Wall, and John Cook-result from a May 1, 2007 episode in which the deputies were sent to a Spokane Valley address after an anonymous caller telephoned 911 to report a suspected identity theft. Under threat of arrest, the primary resident at the address led the deputies to the trailer where Mr. Yohe was sleeping. There, according to the complaint, the deputies gained entry to the trailer under the allegation that a dangerous fire was in progress inside the trailer.

Trent Yohe had a history of Grand Mal seizures and would strike out if someone touched him when he was experiencing a seizure. The deputies reported that, upon entry into the trailer, the flames were gone and Mr. Yohe appeared to be having a seizure. An altercation took place once the deputies tried to forcibly remove Mr. Yohe. He was then tasered at least four times during a 75 second span and assaulted to the extent that one of his ribs was fractured. The complaint alleges the excessive force continued after Mr. Yohe was handcuffed and had his legs tied together with nylon straps while in a prone position.

“Shortly after the physical assault and taserings,” the complaint alleges, “Trent Yohe stopped breathing and exhibited no pulse.”

Mr. Yohe was eventually transported to Sacred Heart Medical Center where he was on life support until being pronounced dead.

The complaint specifically alleges violations of 42 U.S.C. 1983, deprivation of federally protected rights under color of law, including unreasonable search and seizure, excessive force, deadly force, denial of reasonably necessary medical treatment and in-custody homicide. As a result of the rights violations, the suit alleges, the deputies and the county are liable for the emotional and physical pain inflicted on Mr. Yohe and the emotional pain caused to his daughter by his death.

Spokane County is named in the federal charges because the deputies were acting as agents of the county which “through its elected Sheriff [it] has ratified all of the misconduct” by the defendant deputies and failed to provide any disciplinary action for the misconduct. The County is the only defendant in the state charges inasmuch as the deputies were agents acting within the scope of their duties as trained and supervised by the County.

“The deputies were confronted with someone experiencing what they described as a seizure,” says Center for Justice attorney Breean Beggs. “Instead of calling for medical personnel, they turned it into a criminal matter which resulted in a struggle and death. But perhaps what’s most disturbing about this case is that it came a year after Otto Zehm was fatally subdued in a very similar encounter by Spokane police. The Sheriff has said publicly that his department didn’t change anything as a result of the Otto Zehm tragedy, even though the city police department undertook special training after Otto’s death to be better prepared to handle suspects with mental disorders. If the county deputies had been provided that training, as they should have, Trent Yohe would likely still be alive.”

–CFJ