Judge: King County withheld emails on deputy's use of force
A judge has ruled that King County deliberately withheld information on a sheriff's deputy's troubling behavior from attorneys of a man who was left permanently brain-damaged when he was tackled by the deputy in 2009.
Seattle Times staff reporter
TACOMA — A judge on Friday sharply rebuked King County for deliberately withholding information on a sheriff's deputy's troubling behavior from the attorneys of a man left permanently brain-damaged when tackled by the deputy in 2009.
Calling the county's failure to produce three key documents "reprehensible," Pierce County Superior Court Judge Stephanie Arend issued a $300,000 sanction against the county and left the door open for the family of Christopher Sean Harris to possibly receive millions more in compensatory damages.
"This reckless indifference in its failure to produce these three documents — documents that were indisputably relevant — is the functional equivalent of intentional misconduct," Arend said of the failure to turn over the information after Harris' family sued. The county settled with the family for $10 million in January 2011 in the midst of a civil trial in King County Superior Court.
Harris, 32, of Olympia, was left brain-damaged, paralyzed and unable to speak after he was tackled and pushed into a wall by Deputy Matthew Paul in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood in May 2009. Harris had been wrongly identified as a suspect in an earlier bar fight.
In addition to the punitive damages, Arend said King County would be liable for the Harris family's attorneys' fees and possibly compensatory damages that could have been incurred had the family filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit. The family's attorneys have said they would've filed a civil-rights lawsuit if they had information on other use-of-force complaints against Paul.
Arend said she will make a determination on further damages after another hearing so Harris' attorneys can try to show they would have prevailed in a civil-rights case had they possessed the three documents in question.
After Arend issued her ruling, Harris' lead attorney, Sim Osborn, said, "We hit a home run today."
The case was heard in Pierce County to avoid a conflict of interest.
On May 10, 2009, Harris was walking through Belltown when he was wrongly identified by a witness as a suspect in a bloody bar fight that re-erupted inside a nearby convenience store.
The witness pointed Harris out to Paul and another deputy, who were working as King County Metro Transit officers.
Harris led the deputies on a roughly 2 ½-block foot chase as the deputies yelled for him to stop. The two sides disputed exactly when the deputies identified themselves as officers.
According to testimony during the civil trial, Paul and the other deputy were wearing black tactical uniforms, not traditional deputy uniforms. Harris' attorneys said he likely didn't realize the deputies were law-enforcement officers.
As Harris slowed to a stop, Paul delivered a hit to Harris' chest, slamming him into the concrete wall outside the Cinerama theater at Fourth Avenue and Lenora Street. A surveillance camera captured the incident. Harris is seen raising his hands before he is hit by Paul.
An internal investigation by the Sheriff's Office determined Paul delivered a "hard shove" to Harris that fell within legal bounds. The King County Prosecutor's Office, calling it "a very tragic incident," declined to file criminal charges against the deputy.
But after reaching the settlement, Harris' attorneys contended the Sheriff's Office and county withheld emails and other documents that outlined internal concerns about unnecessary or excessive force used by Paul in other incidents. They filed a motion at the end of last year asking Arend to sanction the county and order it pay an additional $3.3 million.
What emails showed
Harris' attorneys allege there were three relevant documents the Sheriff's Office intentionally withheld.
First was a chain of emails to Paul's supervisor about his behavior at the Basic Law Enforcement Academy, where Paul had been demonstrating defensive tactics to new officers. The email said Paul "exhibited behaviors that were a concern" and had used force that was "far above the norm" when working with a smaller female trainee.
The academy's commander later told Paul's supervisor that he would no longer be welcome at the academy.
The county had said its search for information on Paul did not uncover the emails. But Arend, in Friday's ruling, said "any competent electronic discovery effort would have located this email."
Arend also said the county erred when it failed to produce documents about another use-of-force incident that should have been in Paul's personnel file, but was not included until after the county settled the Harris lawsuit.
Additionally, she said the county failed to turn over information about a citizen complaint filed against Paul in May 2010. In that incident, Seattle resident Jeffrey Gold was tackled by Paul and suffered a broken nose after Gold stopped to videotape Paul and other deputies deal with an intoxicated person. Gold was arrested for jaywalking and obstructing an officer, but was never charged. He has filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against Paul and the county.
Deputy still on the job
Paul remains on the force, although he was placed on a performance-improvement plan after former Sheriff Sue Rahr learned he was alleged to have had "verbal conflicts, physical confrontations, use of force and marginal arrests."
King County Sheriff Steve Strachan, who attended Friday's hearing, said he respects the court's ruling, but does not agree the failure to disclose the information about Paul was intentional.
He declined to speak specifically about Paul, but said while there is room for improvement in training, accountability and supervision, the department is nevertheless "very good."
King County prosecutors, who defended the case, said they will wait until the matter is fully resolved before deciding whether to appeal the judge's ruling.
Judge gave "tongue lashing"
Harris' wife, Sarah Harris, and his uncle were in the courtroom for the ruling. Sarah Harris declined to speak, but Steve Harris said it was gratifying to hear the judge "give [the county] a tongue lashing."
He said the recent motion was not about getting more money, but more about getting Paul off the street and teaching the Sheriff's Office a lesson.
"He should have already been dismissed," Steve Harris said. "It's not over. We're not going to give up."
Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or email@example.com.
Information from The Seattle Times archives is included in this report.