State Court of Appeals sustains verdict clearing deputy of excessive force in 2006 vehicle stop.
In a case stemming from a 2006 arrest in which the passenger in a suspect’s car was tasered in the back, a state appeals court panel has ruled in favor of Spokane County and the deputy.
The account from the court record is that Daniel Strange was in the passenger seat early in the morning of January 22, 2006, when Spokane County Sheriff’s Deputy Jeffrey Welton stopped Strange’s girlfriend after the car she was driving was observed make improper turns and accelerating rapidly. After the stop, Strange got out of the car and became involved in a verbal altercation with the deputy. This altercation led to Strange being struck by taser barbs in the back as he turned away from the officer to get back in the car. By that time, according to the deputy, Strange had been informed he was under arrest and had been instructed to stand outside the car with this hands behind his back. Strange says he didn’t hear Welton inform him that he was under arrest, and that he was simply complying with the deputy’s earlier command to get back in the car.
Strange ultimately sued the deputy and the county, alleging excessive force, arrest without probable cause, and further alleging that Spokane County maintains a custom and policy of being deliberately indifferent to the rights and safety of citizens.
The lawsuit led to a jury trial in January 2011 in which the jury concluded that Deputy Welton hadn’t used unreasonable force and hadn’t made the arrest without probable cause. On appeal, Strange and his lawyers claimed Superior Court Judge Salvatore Cozza made mistakes and that the County has abused the discovery process in the case.
Judged by today’s legal standards, what happened to Strange was unlawful. Even accepting the deputy’s version of events, the U.S. Ninth Circuit reached a decision in 2009 that the use of a taser in “dart-mode” (in which the electrified barbs are fired as projectiles at the target/person) is an “intermediate” use of force and thus would be an “unreasonable” use of force against an unarmed person, even one who is non-compliant.
But the state appeals panel followed the same logic that presented itself in the Ninth Circuit case, which is that while the use of “intermediate force” in such circumstances is unreasonable, the law enforcement officer using the taser (Deputy Welton, in this case) was not in a position to know that the use of the barbed taser was considered an “intermediate” use of force.
“(A)s of Deputy Welton’s encounter with Mr. Strange in January 2006,” the panel concluded, “it was not clearly established that use of a taser in dart-mode constituted intermediate force.”
“Certainly the perfect case was not tried here,” the appeals court panel opined in its ruling for the County. “But the perfect case has not been and never will be tried.”
–Tim Connor for the Center for Justice