A federal judge ruled Friday that the city of Spokane will not pay any civil penalties levied against former Spokane Police Officer James “Jay” Olsen, who shot Shonto Pete in the head during a drunken off-duty chase in February 2007.
Federal judge Edward F. Shea ruled in favor of a motion brought by Assistant City Attorney Ellen O’Hara seeking to sever the city from the case. O’Hara successfully argued that Olsen never identified himself as a police officer during the Feb. 26, 2007, chase that ended with Olsen shooting Pete in the head.
“Unless the court can tie the actions of James Olsen to his duties as a police officer, the court must dismiss this case,” O’Hara said.
Shea called the confrontation between Pete and Olsen, who had been drinking and carried a concealed gun at Dempsey’s Brass Rail, a “grave misfortune” and an “alcohol-clouded incident.”
Olsen, who was off-duty, has maintained that he saw Pete try to steal his truck and shot him during the chase. Pete, who was also legally drunk that night, was later exonerated of the charges that he stole Olsen’s truck.
“I have great sympathy for Mr. Pete and the grievous wrong that Mr. Olsen did to him,” Shea said. “Nevertheless, I grant the city’s motion … Mr. Olsen was not acting under the color of law.”
In December 2008, Pete filed a $750,000 claim against Olsen and the city, citing a violation of his civil rights.
One year ago, a Spokane jury acquitted Olsen of first-degree assault and reckless endangerment in connection with the shooting.
Pete’s attorney, John Kannin of Seattle, argued that even if Olsen didn’t announce that he was a police officer, his actions clearly showed that he was. Kannin added that Olsen didn’t announce he was an officer because he was afraid that other officers would learn he is gay after leaving Dempsey’s, a gay bar.
“Citizens don’t pursue suspects and try to take them into custody with a firearm. That’s what (Olsen) was doing … trying to stop a crime,” Kannin said. “He pursued and fired his gun at a suspect. He can say whatever he wants. His actions are clear.”
Pete said Friday that he must consult with his attorneys before deciding whether to appeal Shea’s ruling. If it stands, it means that Pete can only seek monetary penalties from Olsen in any future civil proceedings.
“I think it’s just another blow, not just to me but to the citizens of Spokane,” Pete said. “Justice is really hard to get.”
Olsen, 46, did not comment after the hearing. His attorney, Rob Cossey, said the former police officer “doesn’t have much” money to satisfy any potential civil judgment against him.
Olsen quit the force last April before Chief Anne Kirkpatrick could decide whether to fire him for his actions. As a result of his acquittal, the city had to pay Olsen $153,000 for the time he was placed on unpaid layoff status following his arrest.
Pete said he’s got about $20,000 in medical bills and $18,000 in attorney fees he must pay. The only money Pete said he’s received is a $10.12 check for testifying as a witness at his own trial.
“I’m stuck with $38,000 in bills over a drunken man’s rage with a gun shooting up a town. My life is more important than money, but (the bills) make life harder,” Pete said. “It’s his fault … and he gets all the reward.”
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