When Robert John Preston first sued the Snohomish County sheriff’s deputy he says shot him with a Taser, beat and kicked him into a coma in 2014, he was indigent and in prison, and his handwritten complaint is so crammed with details that its tiny script and lack of spacing makes it appear as a nearly solid block of letters.
That was in 2016, just as the two-year statute of limitations for filing a tort claim against the county was about to expire. For the next year, Preston, 50, kept the federal civil-rights lawsuit alive from the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, using the prison’s law library to help him hold off a barrage of challenges from the county’s lawyers. Preston, who was serving time on an unrelated gun-possession charge, filed motions, public disclosure requests and begged the court to appoint a lawyer to help him. While criminal defendants are guaranteed a lawyer by law, appointment of counsel in civil cases is at the court’s discretion and fairly rare.
All the while, Preston continued to gather police reports, interviews, maps and medical documents to support his claim that, during a stolen-bike investigation at a Park-and-Ride lot, Deputy Ryan Boyer shot him with a Taser gun at least twice and then beat him with the gun so badly that it tore his ear in half and punctured the back of his head. Then, he claims, Ryan kicked him twice in the face, splitting both his lips, breaking his nose, leaving a gash in his forehead and a broken tooth lodged in the back of his throat, according to court documents and medical reports in the file. Preston arrived at the hospital emergency room comatose and was hospitalized for a week.
When he woke up, hospital staff told him that the sheriff’s office said he had injured himself when he fell on his face after he was shot with a stun gun while running away.
Preston won a victory in March 2017 when, after twice refusing Preston’s requests for legal help, U.S. Magistrate Judge Mary Alice Theiler conceded “there are at least serious questions regarding the constitutionality of the defendant’s actions,” and referred Preston’s case to a list of attorneys willing to take cases for free. Since then, Preston has been represented by a legal team from the prestigious Seattle firm of Perkins Coie, and the complexion of the case has changed dramatically.
Two weeks ago, U.S. District Judge John Coughenour adopted Theiler’s report recommending Preston’s case go to trial with evidence of wrongful hiring and retention of Deputy Boyer by the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office. Preston’s legal team turned up evidence that the county hired Boyer knowing he had a history of drug use, soliciting a prostitute and involvement in a 2002 bar fight in which he was charged with assault after kicking another man in the head.
Preston’s attorneys have declined to discuss the case while litigation is pending. Attorneys representing Snohomish County and Boyer did not return email or telephone messages seeking comment on the case.
Boyer, who is now a sergeant and supervisor with the sheriff’s office, was initially hired in 2007 by the now-defunct Snohomish City Police Department. When the sheriff’s office took over law enforcement functions for the city in 2012, city officers were given a chance to transfer to the position of deputy in the sheriff’s office providing they passed a preemployment investigation that included a background check, a polygraph and a psychological test, according to pleadings in the case.
Boyer’s application contained information about his past use of marijuana and other drugs, an incident involving a prostitute while he was in the Navy, and a fight at an Arlington bar called “Shotzes,” in which Boyer and another man beat and kicked another patron. Boyer entered a district court diversionary program and the charge was dismissed after Boyer completed a year of probation.
Unredacted portions of court documents filed in the case indicate he passed his psychological examination and was hired despite his past. Documents indicate he has not been in trouble with the law since 2002.
However, Preston’s attorneys have called into question the adequacy of the sheriff’s background check and whether the investigator passed on to his superiors all the details of Boyer’s past.
Coughenour, who acknowledged that at this point of the proceedings he must give Preston’s version of events the benefit of the doubt, said there is enough evidence to send those allegations to a jury.
“The parties do not dispute that Sergeant Boyer’s personal history includes behavior suggesting that he was unfit for a position with law enforcement [and] that the county was aware of this history at the time it hired him,” the judge wrote. Coughenour noted that an expert witness hired by Preston’s defense team — Scott Defoe, a retired decorated 26-year veteran Los Angeles Police Department SWAT sergeant and hostage negotiator — opined that because of his past, Boyer “should have been precluded from being a law enforcement officer anywhere in the United States.”
Defoe’s testimony in another Washington civil rights case — a wrongful-death case filed against Lakewood police by the family of Leonard Thomas, who was shot in front of his young son following a standoff in 2013 — was crucial to a record $15 million federal jury verdict in that case.
Boyer and the county’s defense team have argued that Boyer was justified in using significant force against Preston. While Preston was not armed, they alleged that he towered over the deputy, weighing 240 pounds to Boyer’s 175 — and that he posed a threat to the public as a fleeing felon.
“Sgt. Boyer used reasonable force to apprehend the plaintiff, who was wanted on multiple felony warrants and new felony charges, was aggressively resisting arrest, and attempted to flee toward the interstate, where his flight would have endangered numerous innocent lives,” they wrote in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
According to pleadings and police reports, Boyer had been on patrol July 30, 2014, when he spotted Preston pushing a bicycle that matched a report of a stolen bike. He stopped Preston, who gave the deputy false identification because he was wanted on a Skagit County burglary warrant, according to court records. Preston has 11 prior felony convictions, most for drugs and property crimes such as theft and burglary, court records show.
Suspicious and unable to confirm Preston’s claim that he had borrowed the bike from another man, Boyer handcuffed Preston, placed him in his patrol car and set off for the sheriff’s office. En route, however, Boyer said Preston agreed to make a statement about where he got the bike.
Boyer pulled over at a park-and-ride lot near 112th Street Southeast. He took the handcuffs off and gave Preston a document to fill out. In the meantime, Boyer discovered Preston’s actual identity and the fact that he was wanted on the Skagit County warrant. Preston, he said, became agitated and defensive when he was confronted and refused to go to his knees and allow himself to be handcuffed again.
Boyer said Preston “snarled” and took up an angled “bladed stance,” which the deputy said indicated he was thinking about fighting or fleeing. Boyer said he drew his Taser and again ordered Preston to comply. When he didn’t, Boyer said he fired the electrified darts into Preston’s abdomen. Preston, he said, pulled them out without effect and ran.
Boyer said in his report he reloaded the Taser and chased Preston. He said he shot Preston a second time, this time the darts striking him in the back. The man’s legs “locked up” and he fell face-first to the pavement. Boyer said that’s when the injuries to Preston’s face occurred.
Boyer said in his report that Preston was struggling to rise when Boyer jumped on his back and delivered a series of “compliance blows” to the back of his head with the Taser. He acknowledged that he kicked Preston at least twice in the torso — blows that were witnessed by his captain as he arrived to provide backup.
Preston claims that when he was shot with the Taser the second time, he fell to his knees and that Boyer ran up and kicked him in the back, smashing his face onto the pavement, and then jumped on his back and began to “hammer” his head with the Taser. Preston’s attorneys said the extent, type and severity of his injuries — the torn ear, split lips, broken facial bones, deep forehead gash and broken teeth — could not have been solely caused by a parking-lot fall and that the force used to arrest him outstripped the threat he posed to the officer or public.