January 5, 2011 in City

Civil trial over use of Taser begins

Lawsuit claims deputy used excessive force
By The Spokesman-Review
 

A Spokane County sheriff’s detective who has been the subject of a number of use-of-force complaints appeared in court Tuesday, the first day in a civil trial brought by a man who claimed that he was unnecessarily shocked by a Taser during a traffic stop.

Daniel B. Strange, 41, filed a $1.5 million excessive force lawsuit against Spokane County in 2006 after a traffic stop on Jan. 22 of that year in which Deputy Jeff Welton shot Strange with a Taser during a traffic stop in Spokane Valley.

“This is a case about public trust. It’s about abuse of law enforcement power,” Strange’s attorney, Mary Schultz, told the jury. “There is nothing more important to us than the compliance of this code in the middle of the night with an armed officer.”

But Heather Yakely, who is representing Spokane County in the suit, said Welton – who was promoted last year to detective by Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich – felt threatened when Strange got out of his car.

“Mr. Strange believes the use of the Taser was unnecessary and excessive force,” Yakely said. “Based upon (Welton’s) training, that was the appropriate action to take.”

The incident began when Strange left a Spokane Valley bar at closing time with his girlfriend, who has since become his wife. She was driving his 1983 Mazda RX7 and apparently squealed the tires as she left the bar parking lot. Welton was nearby in a patrol car with a civilian ride-along and stopped the Mazda at the Interstate 90 and Argonne Road interchange.

Strange, from his passenger seat, questioned the purpose of the stop and became angry when Welton, according to Schultz, slammed the driver’s side door so hard that it cracked the windshield.

At that point, Strange got out of the passenger door; Schultz said Welton drew his service pistol and aimed it at Strange, then grabbed his Taser. Shultz said Welton ordered Strange back in the car or he would use the Taser.

Strange was getting in the car when the Taser probes hit him in the back, Schultz said.

But Yakely said Welton told Strange that he was under arrest – deputies are trained to prevent anyone under arrest from getting back into a car. Sheriff’s witnesses will “tell you Deputy Welton’s actions absolutely fell within procedures,” Yakely said.

Schultz referred to a report she filed in the case by T. Michael Nault, a former King County police commander who worked on the Green River killer investigations. In it, Nault wrote that the Sheriff’s Office’s patrol division received 42 excessive force complaints between 2001 and 2006 and that 13 named Welton.

“His actions and behaviors in this matter were sufficiently egregious so as to constitute an embarrassment to the law enforcement profession,” wrote Nault, who was hired as expert witness.

But Knezovich, who said he promoted Welton because of his work ethic and performance, said he asked his Office of Professional Standards to review the same records and could only find 27 excessive force complaints against the patrol division between 2001 and 2008. Of those, five name Welton.

“I don’t think those were all use of force. Some were demeanor complaints,” he said. “I don’t believe any of them were substantiated.”

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