A federal judge has refused to dismiss a civil-rights lawsuit filed against the city of Kent and one of its police officers involved in the 2017 shooting of Giovonn Joseph-McDade, questioning whether the officer had any reason to fear for his life or the public safety when the fatal shots were fired.
In a 15-page order issued Thursday, U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein said the evidence disputes claims that the 20-year-old Joseph-McDade, who was unarmed, had fled from police at high speed and then was poised to run down Kent police Officer William Davis in his car when Davis fired into Joseph-McDade’s car, which had driven into a cul-de-sac.
“There is no suggestion in this case that Joseph-McDade had committed a crime involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical harm prior to the car chase,” Rothstein wrote, noting that Kent Officer Matthew Rausch had initially stopped Joseph-McDade early on June 24, 2017, in the parking lot of a Kent convenience store for having an expired registration. The officer said he had keyed in on the car, containing three young Black men, because, he said, one of the young men “appeared startled” when he saw the officer and exited the car.
Rothstein’s order sends the lawsuit, filed in 2020 by Joseph-McDade’s parents, to trial.
Rausch called for backup, classifying the call as “priority 2,” meaning there was little or no threat. Davis acknowledged the call and responded, according to police reports.
Joseph-McDade, with a single passenger, drove away from Rausch, who said in sworn testimony that the young man “punched [the gas]” as he drove off. However, a computer-assisted dispatch report from the officer’s car indicates Joseph-McDade drove between 20 and 30 miles per hour, under the speed limit of 35.
Rausch said he immediately gave pursuit. Rausch at one point unsuccessfully attempted a maneuver intended to make Joseph-McDade lose control of his car, according to court filings and police reports.
The use of that tactic, called a PIT maneuver, is dangerous and can be considered a use of deadly force, which Joseph-McDade’s lawyers argue wasn’t warranted for having expired registration.
The judge noted that even during the pursuit, Joseph-McDade used his turn signals and utilized turn lanes.
Joseph-McDade, who was unarmed, drove into a cul-de-sac at about 10 mph, with the two police cars right behind him, according to court files. When he stopped, Davis exited his car, drew his handgun and stepped in front of Joseph-McDade’s car, where he ordered the two young men out of the vehicle.
Davis fired two rounds into the car after, he later said, he heard Joseph-McDade’s engine “rev up” and the car “launch directly” at him. Rausch, meantime, rammed his police cruiser into the suspect car. According to testimony and video of the incident, Joseph-McDade drove slowly past the officers, out of the cul-de-sac, then stopped. One of the rounds had struck him in the chest. He died at the scene.
Just three minutes passed between when Rausch had approached the car at the convenience store and when the shots were fired, according to the court files and the judge’s order.
A portion of the incident — including the collision and sound of the gunshots — was captured by a surveillance camera at a nearby home.
Rothstein said there is no evidence Joseph-McDade posed a threat to police or the public even during the chase, when he mostly drove below the speed limit.
“The justification proffered by the defendants for Officer Davis’ use of deadly force is that at the time he fired at Joseph-McDade, he believed his life was in danger,” Rothstein wrote. “However, the evidence before the court demonstrates serious disputes on this issue.”
Telephone and email messages seeking comment on the order from the attorney representing Kent and the officers were not immediately returned Friday.
Rothstein pointed out there are two civilian eyewitnesses who questioned whether Davis was in danger; one woman who lived in the neighborhood said the officer could have moved out of the way. The judge also noted a Des Moines police report that states the rounds entered the windshield from an angle, indicating Davis was not in front of the car when he fired.
The passenger in Joseph-McDade’s car, Devonte Cheeks, said in sworn testimony that his friend was driving slow and trying to weave around the police cars when he was shot.
“Simply put, the evidence before the court presents a dispute of fact as to whether a reasonable officer in Officer Davis’ position would have believed he was in imminent danger when he fatally shot Joseph-McDade,” Rothstein wrote.
Rothstein did dismiss Rausch from the civil-rights claim, but allowed a negligence claim against both officers and the city proceed, saying there is “sufficient evidence to allow a jury to reasonably conclude that Officers Rausch and Davis breached their duty of care of Joseph-McDade during their encounter with him.”
She noted that plaintiff’s claim the initial stop was pretextual, that the chase violated Kent Police Department policy and that the officers escalated a minor traffic stop into a deadly force confrontation.
Washington law provides that it is a defense against liability if the injured person was hurt while committing a felony, and the officers’ lawyers argue that Joseph-McDade had both assaulted Davis by driving at him and recklessly eluded police. However, the judge said both those crimes are disputed by the facts of the case.