A suspended Spokane firefighter’s wrongful arrest lawsuit against the Washington State Patrol over a botched child pornography investigation is headed to trial after an appellate court ruling Wednesday.
A three-person panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals says false statements made by WSP investigators amounted to intentional and reckless conduct that infringed on Spokane fire Lt. Todd Chism’s civil rights. The two WSP employees named in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit, Detective Rachel Gardner and Sgt. John Sager, shouldn’t be granted immunity because of their actions, the court ruled.
The ruling reverses a previous decision by U.S. District Court Judge Lonny Suko.
Chism’s Spokane lawyer, Bob Dunn, said he expects the lawsuit to be scheduled for trial within the next year to 18 months. “We only have to talk about damages,” Dunn said.
WSP spokesman Bob Calkins said Thursday afternoon that the agency has not decided whether to seek a review of the ruling by the full court.
“We continue to believe that our troopers acted in good faith with the available information that they had at the time,” Calkins said of the 2008 incident.
The 9th Circuit ruling was issued the same day Dunn filed a $10 million claim against the state of Washington alleging WSP Troopers Greg Birkeland and Greg Riddell used excessive force when they arrested Chism in a separate incident in April 2010. A Stevens County jury acquitted Chism of assault and resisting arrest charges last week and awarded him attorney fees.
Chism returned to paid administrative leave at his $93,535 per-year job after the verdict, said Brian Schaeffer, assistant Spokane fire chief. He’d been on unpaid layoff status pending the resolution of the felony charges.
The claim filed Thursday alleges harassment, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, intentional infliction of emotional distress and retaliation, among other things. It stems from an early morning melee outside Chism’s Nine Mile Falls home after troopers responded to reports of a fight, but found Chism trying to move his truck after it had gotten stuck.
Dunn said Chism was assaulted by the troopers after being shocked seven times with a Taser.
“I would have never guessed that he would have been stopped by the State Patrol and have the State Patrol announce ‘We know who you are; we’re going to arrest you,’ “ Dunn said. “You’ve got to believe there’s some element of retaliation here.”
Dunn said Chism suffers from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder because of his wrongful arrest for child pornography and feared the troopers were there in April as a continuance of the earlier case.
The child pornography case began in January 2008 when Gardner obtained a search warrant for Chism’s home and for his real estate office in Spokane. Chism was arrested on child pornography charges and jailed overnight, but no child pornography was found and he was never charged. He and his wife said they were victims of credit card thefts that led to child pornography-related purchases on their account.
The 9th Circuit ruling details several false statements and omissions by investigators when they sought the warrant, including that Chism’s credit card paid for child pornography images. In fact, the card paid hosting fees for websites to which pornography images were uploaded. Gardner also omitted from her affidavit that IP addresses associated with the Internet accounts “were traced to people other than the Chisms.”
The ruling said the false statements and omissions were crucial to a magistrate approving the search warrant.
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