|Former Sgt. Jeff Shelton and drug K9 Dixie sit for an all-staff Snohomish Police Department photo in 2009 (file photo)
City wins police tasing lawsuit
SNOHOMISH - The city recently won a lengthy case involving a 2008 police tasing incident, but it may not be over.
In the case, a former Snohomish Police Department sergeant tased a neighbor who repeatedly was told to stay back while police tried to stop a suicidal man.
The case rose from a civil suit by the neighbors’ family against the city into a federal case that bounced from federal court to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and back to federal court again until the jury reached a decision that favored the city on Thursday, April 3.
The incident occurred when the city police department was independent and not contracted under the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, so the city was sued.
The key issue the case explored, apart from the neighbor’s family seeking damages and alleging an unlawful arrest, was the courts’ perception of the use of tasers as low-level force by police officers.
The tasing incident
In May of 2008, the Snohomish Police Department, a few Sheriffs deputies and an officer from Lake Stevens responded to an emergency call about a suicidal man. The man was known to carry a 9 mm handgun with him. When officers arrived at the scene of the crisis, the man was in the process of attempting to asphyxiate himself in his vehicle with a dryer hose. Shortly after, the suicidal man’s neighbor, Donald Blondin, inserted himself into the scene asking what was going on and was repeatedly asked by officers to walk away. He did not.
The scene in itself was a crisis situation, according to police, court documents and city officials. Two issues were the fact that officers did not know where the handgun was, and if the suicidal person was going to be the type who may pursue a “suicide by cop.” Stress levels were high. When Blondin did not remove himself from the crisis situation, he became a “distraction” to the officers, court documents state, and after repeated warnings, he was tased by Sgt. Jeff Shelton.
The suicidal man also was tased after police got him out of his car and struggled with him.
Blondin was arrested and charged with obstructing a police officer, a charge that was ultimately dropped during the course of the legal saga.
The suicidal man’s handgun was found beneath the car seat in a plastic bag.
“The yelling behind me was a concern to me,” one officer testified. “And the reason was, I had my hands full. We were dealing with a very dangerous, fluid situation, suicidal subject with a gun. ... (Shelton) was extremely concerned.”
Court documents said that Shelton deployed his taser to Blondin after several warnings to “get back” while Blondin stood there unmoving.
A Ninth Circuit court summary states Shelton fired his Taser right as he warned Blondin to leave or be tased, and then warned Blondin’s wife Kristi “you’re next.”
In dart mode, Shelton tased Blondin for approximately two seconds of a standard five-second cycle.
“Though the circumstances would have supported more severe uses of force – such as a baton or OC spray – Shelton chose the taser, this was, in his judgment, appropriate because it would ‘temporarily incapacitate Blondin and allow him to gain custody immediately and alleviate the safety concerns caused by (Blondin’s) presence,’ rather than just hurt him,” court documents state.
Shelton is no longer with the Snohomish Police Department.
City manager Larry Bauman said Shelton left the force sometime before 2011. He is currently employed at The Boeing Co.
Bauman said the city defended Shelton because the city is obligated to defend him as he was a police officer acting in his official capacity as a city employee.
One of the Blondins’ attorneys, Tim Ford, said their camp will be pursuing an appeal of the decision.
“The jury was not allowed to hear about many things,” Ford said, including “the legal standards governing the use of Tasers, so there are many potential grounds for appeal, and we are preparing to pursue them all.”
In pre-trial documents the jury never saw, Shelton has a documented history of insubordination and was the subject of multiple police department internal disciplinary investigations.
These documents were presented as evidence by the Blondins’ attorneys but ultimately not included in jury trial exhibits.
On November 9, 2009, the Gravelet-Blondins — Donald and Kristi — sued the city and Shelton for excessive force and unlawful arrest.
Kristi Blondin also sued for outrage under state law for the hardship she suffered watching her husband’s tasing and being threatened with tasing herself.
After considering cross-motions for summary judgment, the district court judged in favor of the city and Shelton on all claims.
The Blondins’ attorneys then filed an appeal with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and in May of 2013, the case was argued once again.
The issues of excessive force and an alleged constitutional violation of the Fourth Amendment were touched upon during the court case in the Ninth Circuit. The question of whether there was sufficient probable cause to arrest Blondin was raised, with multiple precedent cases cited. Blondin’s attorneys argued that Blondin did not pose a major threat to officers, as he determined he stood 37 feet from the scene when told to “get back.” They also argued that given the fact that Blondin did not resist arrest or attempt to escape, and prior to being tased, he was “perfectly passive” to officers, the use of such force was unnecessary.
A Ninth Circuit court summary concludes that “taking the evidence in the light most favorable to the Blondins, a reasonable factfinder could conclude that Shelton’s use of force was unreasonable and excessive, in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
The Ninth Circuit ruled that the case be sent back to trial court.
The city and Shelton’s attorneys filed a petition in December 2013 with the U.S. Supreme Court after receiving the Ninth Circuit’s decision to send the case back to trial.
City attorneys felt that the key issue of use of low-level force with Tasers should be highlighted, and to spotlight how the Ninth Circuit court viewed this issue.
After the case went back to trial in the Western District of Washington of U.S. District Court, statements on evidence and deliberations were again presented to the jury.
Bauman confirmed that he, along with other city officials, were in court for a week and a half.
The jury ruled in favor of the city and Shelton on April 3.
The Blondins’ attorney, Ford, disagrees with what the jury was given to decide upon.
“I have never had a jury verdict I disagreed with so strongly,” he said.w “Don Blondin is a law abiding citizen who did what every citizen should do: He saw his elderly neighbor being abused by police for no apparent reason and he politely asked why. For that he was screamed at, shot with a Taser, shocked, arrested and charged with a crime. The leaders of the City of Snohomish, and several police officers who still work there, defended that treatment of one of its citizens as completely correct. The voters of Snohomish should give that some serious thought.”
The city, which informed the Tribune of this case, is happy with the April 3 result.
“We’re very relieved to have this judgment, or decision, in the city’s favor by the jury,” Bauman said. “This has been a long legal saga that’s kind of been hanging over the city for six years now, so we’re very pleased to have it resolved in the city’s favor so we can move forward.”
Bauman also said the key issue for the city in light of the case was the use of force and judgment calls.
“It’s always regrettable when you have to use force against a citizen, but at what point do the officers have an explicit right to use force when they feel that citizen is infringing upon a dangerous situation. That’s the key question we were dealing with.”