Josiah Hunter and a friend escorted a drunken driver back to the scene of a 2014 car crash before officers arrived. Federal Way police say the two men were arrested after repeatedly failing to comply with officers' orders. A federal jury found one officer used excessive force when he put Hunter into chokehold.
A federal civil-rights jury has awarded a Federal Way man $640,000 after finding a Federal Way police officer used excessive force when arresting the man, who was a bystander at an accident scene in September 2014.
The jury gave Josiah Hunter $40,000 for the excessive-force claim and tacked on $600,000 in punitive damages, which U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman said could be awarded only if the panel found the officer’s conduct “was malicious, oppressive or in reckless disregard of the plaintiff’s rights.”
The city disputed the jury’s finding and said it would appeal.
Federal Way police had argued in court that Hunter and his friend, Junior Beausilien, impeded and delayed the investigation into a two-car collision they witnessed that was caused by a drunken driver and repeatedly refused to comply with officer commands to back away from the accident scene, court records show. Officer Kris Durrell used what is known as a vascular neck restraint control on Hunter, which Hunter said made it difficult for him to breathe and made him fear he would be choked to death, say the records.
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Police countered that Hunter’s arrest was lawful and that Durrell used reasonable force.
Hunter and Beausilien were arrested and charged with criminal trespass, obstructing law enforcement and resisting arrest in Federal Way Municipal Court, but those charges were dismissed by city prosecutors a year later, in September 2015.
“They should have been treated as heroes but weren’t,” said James Bible, who represented Hunter with co-counsel Jesse Valdez.
On Sept. 14, 2014, Hunter and Beausilien were at a Federal Way gas station and convenience store on South 320th Street and Pacific Highway South when they heard the sounds of a crash, caused when the driver of a Dodge Ram pickup ran a red light and slammed almost head-on with a Chevy Silverado.
The driver of the Dodge Ram was obviously intoxicated and began walking away from the scene before police arrived, court records say. A witness, who turned out to be a private investigator, yelled to Hunter and Beausilien to stop the man from fleeing the scene and the two young men, who were both in their early 20s, escorted the driver back to the parking lot.
According to the police department’s trial brief, Hunter and Beausilien were asked at least 20 times to back up and allow officers to process the crash scene, but the men impeded the investigation, causing a 20-minute delay in getting the scene cleared and transporting the drunken driver to the police station. Another officer went into the store and asked a clerk if she wanted to have Hunter and Beausilien trespassed from the parking lot, and she apparently left it up to the officers to decide.
Bible — who said the clerk testified that she did not request a trespass order — said Hunter and Beausilien were told to leave and were attempting to comply when they were both arrested. Hunter had the driver’s door to his vehicle open when Durrell grabbed him and utilized the neck constraint to handcuff him, court records say.
While Hunter’s lawsuit did not assert a racial claim, Bible said he believes “race was in the mix” during the incident. Both Hunter and Beausilien are black.
In a statement issued Thursday, Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell said the city believes legal errors were made during the weeklong trial in U.S. District Court in Seattle and intends to appeal the jury’s damage award.
“The City of Federal Way has zero tolerance for police misconduct, and we do not believe that that is what transpired in this case,” Ferrell wrote. “As the Mayor of the City of Federal Way, I want to state that both Police Chief Andy Hwang and I are committed to constant evaluation of the police department’s performance and abilities to ensure the highest level of service.”
In a separate statement, spokeswoman Cathy Schrock said the police department is disappointed in the jury’s verdict.
“Mr. Hunter and his friend Mr. Beausilien failed to follow lawful orders at the accident scene, hindering and delaying the officers in the official performance of their duties,” the statement says. “At one point, Hunter picked up the DUI suspect’s wallet and attempted to walk away with it. Our officers had a difficult job to do in a chaotic, potentially hazardous environment, and the two young men … used poor judgement to challenge the lawful order of the officers.”
In a trial brief filed by his attorneys, Hunter said he impulsively picked up the wallet at the suspect’s request but returned it to where it had been sitting on a curb when told to do so by an officer.
Bible said it is disingenuous for the city to claim there are grounds for an appeal and criticized the Federal Way Police Department for disregarding accountability issues in the department. The department needs to invest in cameras, both body-worn cameras and dashboard cameras inside patrol cars, to bring it into “the modern era of policing,” he said.
There was no audio or video account of the incident, and Bible said officers did not collect video footage from the convenience store’s surveillance cameras to see if they captured any of the incident.
Bible said Hunter’s mother is a victim advocate in the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and his uncle is a police officer in another state.
His mother testified at trial that Hunter came home in tears and told her, “Mama, I did everything you taught me to do and it didn’t work,” recounted Bible. “He’s lived with and grown up with law enforcement … His whole goal and desire was to support law enforcement.”
Though the charges against Hunter and Beausilien were dropped by the city, the trespass order barring them from returning to the convenience store remains in effect, Bible said. “It’s completely bogus,” he said.