The King County Sheriff’s Office will issue an apology, has agreed to pay $80,000, and has implemented new use-of-force guidelines on when deputies can threaten a motorist with deadly force, to settle a federal civil-rights lawsuit brought by two African American high-school students who say they were wrongly held at gunpoint at a concert last year.
The settlement was reached after negotiations between the Sheriff’s Office and attorneys representing the boys and their families, who demanded the Sheriff’s Office update its use-of-force policies to comply with a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals opinion. The court had put the Sheriff’s Office on notice months earlier that pointing a gun at an unarmed and compliant driver risked violating the driver’s Fourth Amendment protections against illegal seizures. Even so, it took the Sheriff’s Office nearly nine months to put a new policy in place, according to court documents.
It was during that time period that Deputy Corey Marcotte approached what he thought was a stolen Jeep outside the White River Amphitheatre on June 19, 2018. He allegedly pointed a gun at the head of the Jeep’s 17-year-old driver, identified in court papers by the initials N.W., and ordered, “Don’t you [expletive] move!,” according to the lawsuit filed last November in U.S. District Court.
N.W., a 15-year-old friend identified as P.B., and several others had attended a Chris Brown concert at the amphitheater. N.W. and P.B., who was in the passenger seat, were waiting for N.W.’s sister and other friends when the deputy appeared.
“N.W. heard the pistol cock. He turned his head and saw the pistol inches away from his head. He was looking down the barrel of the pistol,” the lawsuit stated. P.B, who had been holding his phone, dropped it and held up his hands. Both boys, according to the lawsuit, asked Marcotte why he was pointing his gun at them. According to the lawsuit, the deputy did not respond.
It turned out that the report of the stolen Jeep was false: Someone had reported another Jeep stolen, but that vehicle had actually only been moved. The Jeep N.W. was driving was registered to his mother, according to the lawsuit.
Marcotte has denied he pointed the weapon, but acknowledged he approached the Jeep with his weapon drawn. In his report, he stated that the driver was “verbally uncooperative and asked me why I had my gun pointed at him.”
“In that moment, N.W., who is African American, believed he was going to be shot,” the lawsuit said. “Amid images of other African Americans getting killed he’d seen on television or heard about on social media, N.W. thought, ‘I can’t believe this is happening to me,'” the lawsuit said.
The boys claim Marcotte, yelling and using expletives, gave conflicting orders while pointing the gun at them. He ordered them out of the car, told them to turn off the vehicle, and demanded the registration.
N.W. complied and exited the car. He said he was handcuffed tightly and “pushed … hard” onto the hood of the vehicle. “While this was happening, N.W. involuntarily urinated on himself out of fear,” the lawsuit said.
About 15 minutes later, a sergeant arrived at the scene, located the registration “and realized the officers had stopped the wrong car.”
The boys allege in the lawsuit that they were traumatized by the incident and that both have developed mistrust of police.
The lawsuit alleges the incident revealed a “pattern and practice” by the Sheriff’s Office “of allowing its officers to threaten lethal force during felony traffic stops” in instances where there is no sign of danger and the driver is compliant and poses no obvious threat to the officer. Doing so, according to the lawsuit, violates clearly established law in the 9th Circuit — evolving from another case involving King County deputies — that says such threats amount to unconstitutional excessive force.
Indeed, until December 2018, the Sheriff’s Office did not consider pointing a firearm at someone a reportable use of force.
However, that changed after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in a case stemming from a 2011 King County traffic stop, ruled in March 2018 that pointing a gun at an unarmed and compliant driver who poses no obvious threat could violate that person’s Fourth Amendment protections against illegal seizure. The court stated that it would be proper and legal for a law enforcement officer to draw their weapon and hold it in the “low ready” position as a precaution in such cases.
In December, six months after the incident involving Deputy Marcotte and the two teenagers, and nine months after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals placed the Sheriff’s Office on notice that such actions were potentially unconstitutional, Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht issued a special order modifying the department’s use-of-force policies to state that pointing a gun at someone is a reportable use of force. Training now takes into account the guidelines contained in the 9th Circuit’s opinion, said sheriff’s chief of staff Liz Rocca.
In a statement, the sheriff did not address the nine-month delay in issuing the order. As part of the settlement, however, Johanknecht acknowledged “the importance of directly and immediately sharing significant legal developments and policy changes with deputies.”
Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Ryan Abbott said the special order is intended to add a level of supervisory review to instances where deputies draw and point their firearms. He added, “Approaching a stolen car is considered to be a high-risk stop and deputies are trained to take appropriate measures to protect themselves, including drawing a firearm, until the risk of harm subsides.”
The settlement is pending final approval by U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik. It includes a cash payment of $80,000. The boys’ attorneys, at the Seattle firm MacDonald Hoague & Bayless, will receive $30,000. N.W. will receive $30,000 and P.B. will receive $20,000, which will be held in trust until he turns 18.
The agreement also provides that Sheriff Johanknecht will meet with the boys personally and “voice her sincere apology for their involvement in this incident.” The sheriff agreed to write a letter stating the boys were not at fault and that, “by all accounts, both are outstanding young men with bright futures” who were caught up in a case of mistaken identity.