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County faces suit in man’s ’07 death

Thu., July 2, 2009

Unreasonable force, search are alleged

A federal lawsuit has been filed against Spokane County alleging that deputies violated a man’s civil rights when they repeatedly used a Taser and hogtied him during a struggle in 2007 that resulted in his death.

The suit was filed this week on behalf of Trent Yohe by his former wife, Serrina Francis, who had a child with Yohe and was appointed to administer his estate. She’s represented by the public-interest law firm Center for Justice, which also represents Otto Zehm’s mother in a similar lawsuit against the Spokane Police Department.

The Yohe suit alleges that Deputies Scott Bonney, Mike Wall and John Cook – who were under contract to provide police services to Spokane Valley – conducted an unreasonable search and used unreasonable force during the May 1, 2007, struggle with Yohe, a 37-year-old drug addict who had epilepsy.

Yohe, who had methamphetamine in his blood at the time, stopped breathing after he received four Taser shocks within 75 seconds while he was hogtied. He was transported to Sacred Heart Medical Center, where he was pronounced brain-dead. He died 12 days later.

The deputies committed “assault, battery and false imprisonment on Trent Yohe, when they seized him and repeatedly struck him with their bodies and a tasers without consent or legal authority in a manner that was offensive, injurious and proximately caused his death,” the suit states in part.

Neither Jim Emacio, the county’s chief civil deputy prosecuting attorney, nor Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich returned phone calls seeking comment. Knezovich has said in the past that his deputies acted within department policies.

The confrontation was investigated by Spokane Police Department detectives, and the case was forwarded to Prosecutor Steve Tucker without the recommendation of charges against the deputies.

The case also was reviewed by the FBI, but Frank Harrill, the supervisory agent in charge of the bureau’s Spokane office, said that investigation has ended without a request to file federal charges.

The incident began when Spokane Valley police responded to an anonymous call about drug activity in a travel trailer parked in the backyard of a home at 6811 E. Fifth Ave.

According to the suit, Yohe had been living in the trailer with the permission of its owner, Billy Ashton. Deputy Bonney – who had a felony forgery arrest warrant for Yohe – arrived at Cecile Jones’ residence and asked where he could find Yohe.

“Ms. Jones reports that she was threatened by Deputy Bonney with a warrant for her arrest and thus agreed to assist him,” the suit states.

Bonney and Wall approached the travel trailer. Jones had given them consent to search her home and property but not the travel trailer, according to the suit.

The deputies knocked on the trailer several times, and Jones called out to Yohe, with no response.

But the Center for Justice’s Breean Beggs, who filed the suit, said Bonney entered illegally by reaching in an open window to “push aside a curtain and saw flames.” At that time, Ashton, Yohe’s friend, fled through a hatch in the roof. The deputies then forced their way into the trailer and found Yohe, who appeared to be having a seizure, according to court records.

“When this male was contacted, he immediately became combative and struck SCSO Deputy (Scott) Bonney with a closed fist,” Spokane police Detective Marty Hill wrote in a search warrant seeking to search the trailer.

The lawsuit, however, says the fire was already out when deputies went in. “At the time Deputy Bonney contacted Trent Yohe, there was no actual physical danger … by any purported flames or embers,” the suit states.

The deputies forced Yohe outside and applied four Taser shocks. “Deputy Wall performed a knee strike to Trent Yohe on the right side of his back that is consistent with a rib fracture diagnosed by the Medical Examiner during the autopsy,” according to the suit.

Dr. John Howard, who performed the autopsy, listed Yohe’s cause of death as a shortage of oxygen to his brain caused by a combination of factors that included drugs in his body, heart disease, “excited delirium” and the method by which he was restrained.

The suit seeks damages to be determined in court.

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