Spokane attorney Carl Oreskovich has filed a $5 million claim against Spokane County on behalf of a 34-year-old painter of custom homes who was Tasered repeatedly by a county sheriff’s deputy after a traffic stop on a summer night two years ago.
The claim, filed Monday with the county’s risk management department, describes Spirit Creager’s encounter with two deputies as an assault and a civil rights violation. Filing a claim is a necessary first step to initiate a lawsuit against the county.
The actions of Spokane County sheriff’s deputies Chad Ruff and Todd Saunders constitute an “unreasonable detention, a false arrest, an assault, an unnecessary and excessive use of force, as well as the negligent and/or intentional infliction of emotional distress,” the claim says.
An assistant in the office of Jim Emacio, Spokane County’s chief civil prosecutor, said the office hadn’t seen the claim Monday afternoon and he couldn’t comment.
In a June 25 Spokesman-Review story, Creager said he decided to come forward for the first time to describe his experience after the Tasering last March of Otto Zehm, the 36-year-old mentally ill man who had a fatal confrontation with Spokane police in a North Side convenience store. The two men did not know each other.
The Creager incident occurred on Aug. 30, 2004, after Creager and his girlfriend, Mattie Whitney, had worked into the evening remodeling his 1906 house on west Broadway Avenue. Their children, Joshua and Ashley, 11 and 8 at the time, were asleep in their 1974 Dodge pickup along with their dog, Thai, when a Spokane County sheriff’s patrol car stopped them on Dartford Road north of the city.
Creager said Ruff told him he had a broken taillight and a suspended license and ordered him to get out of the truck. The young couple said Ruff was strangely aggressive for a traffic stop.
The three Taser jolts that Ruff delivered to Creager’s back while knocking him to the ground caused a pain “worse than I have ever imagined,” Creager said in a written account of his ordeal. Several of his teeth were broken when his jaw clenched shut from the jolts. He said the incident left him unable to sleep, work or function normally for months and also affected Joshua, who had heard his father’s screams from inside the truck.
Creager, who had no criminal record, spent three days in jail.
“They ruined our lives,” Creager said.
In his report on the incident, Ruff said Creager looked like he had been drinking, became angry and tried to hit him. Ruff said he stunned Creager after he resisted being handcuffed.
Ruff never told Creager he was under arrest and didn’t tell him why he was being detained, according to the claim.
In “Use of Force” reports obtained by the newspaper, Ruff’s supervisors said his use of the Taser was “reasonable under the circumstances.” But they also said Ruff, who had worked for the department since January 2001, should have made better use of verbal commands and hadn’t told Creager he was under arrest – invalidating a charge of resisting arrest. That lapse had been “previously discussed in earlier use-of-force incidents with Deputy Ruff,” according to Rick Van Leuven, the shift commander.
Creager was arrested for obstructing an officer, resisting arrest and for driving under the influence. But his Breathalyzer reading showed his alcohol levels were .058 and .060 – well below the .08 legal limit.
On Oct. 15, 2004, the DUI and resisting-arrest charges were dropped on a motion of the Spokane County prosecutor. Creager pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstructing an officer.
As a result of the encounter, Creager has had nightmares, pain, numbness and touch impairment in his arms and hands and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the claim. His son Joshua also suffered emotional distress, the claim says.
Creager told the newspaper he was too afraid to complain directly to law enforcement officials about his treatment – a necessary first step for a review of his case by the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, which has its own internal system to review citizen complaints. There is no independent oversight of the Sheriff’s Office.