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Man sues Auburn police over rough arrest that left him unconscious with broken bones

UPDATED: Wed., Nov. 11, 2020

By Mike Carter Seattle Times

A 47-year-old man has sued the Auburn Police Department and one of its officers for allegedly using excessive force during a routine drunken-driving arrest by pulling the man from his car and slamming him to the pavement, knocking him unconscious and breaking bones in his face.

A lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court by city resident Khomphet Phetsadakone alleges Officer Joe Michels used excessive force during the arrest, which occurred on Sept. 9, 2019, and was captured on police car dash-camera video.

According to the lawsuit and police reports, Michels initiated a traffic stop near 6th Street Northeast around 12:30 a.m., after purportedly watching Phetsadakone’s SUV straddle the centerline following a turn.

After stopping the car, the officer can be heard on the dashcam video repeatedly telling the driver to turn off the vehicle and asking for identification, while the driver asks why he’s been pulled over. During the exchange, Michels is seen approaching the car with his handgun drawn and held down alongside his leg. He holsters his sidearm as he tells Phetsadakone that he’s being audio and video recorded via a dash camera. Auburn officers do not wear body cameras.

According to his report, Michels said he smelled “an odor of intoxicants” when he approached the car and that Phetsadakone appeared under the influence with watery eyes and flushed features, his head bobbing up and down.

Michels does not respond when the driver asks why he’s been pulled over, and asks several times to see a driver’s license. In his report, Michels says Phetsadakone told him “no” after the final request.

Then, Michels tells Phetsadakone he’s under arrest, although the officer never states why. Michels is seen on the video opening the car door and grabbing the driver’s hand. Phetsadakone says, “Hold on. Hold on, sir,” then hollers, “Oww!” as Michels applied what he described in his report as a “straight wrist twist lock” to force the driver into a position where handcuffs could be applied.

Phetsadakone tensed up and resisted, Michel wrote, so he grabbed the man’s shirt. His report states, “I then pulled Khomphet out of the vehicle and he fell onto the cement onto the ground and landed face down. I then placed Khomphet into handcuffs and assisting officer’s arrived to the location.

“At this time, Khomphet was unconscious and there was blood coming from underneath his face,” the officer wrote.

The video shows the officer pull Phetsadakone from the car and throw him to the ground. The lawsuit said he suffered a fractured orbital bone.

The lawsuit alleges that Michels “violated the Fourth Amendment’s clearly established prohibitions against excessive force … while arresting him without any objectively reasonable belief that Khomphet Phetsadakone posed an immediate threat of harm to himself or others.

“Khomphet Phetsadakone was not resisting, not fighting, did not have any weapons, made no threats of violence, and was not suspected of a violent criminal offense,” the lawsuit alleges.

Kalyn Brady, a spokesperson for the City of Auburn, said the city doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

Phetsadakone alleges he suffered permanent injuries, both physical and emotional, from the encounter and alleges those injuries were foreseeable because the Auburn Police Department has “failed to equip its law enforcement officers with the necessary training and tools to handle recurring situations, such as arresting nonviolent suspects failing to yield or failing to obey an officer’s instructions.”

King County prosecutors in August charged a different Auburn officer, Jeffrey Nelson, with murder for his third fatal shooting with the department and the city has paid $1.25 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the family of another man killed by Nelson. Nelson has pleaded not guilty to the murder charge.

Attorneys Kevin Hastings and Darrell Cochran, who are representing Phetsadakone, said his violent arrest, in the context of these other incidents, points to a failed system of accountability in the department.

“Across the nation we have seen police departments like Auburn allowing a good-old-boys culture to fester that tolerates – even encourages – police aggression and violence, most often against underrepresented or minority communities,” Hastings said.

Because of his injuries, Phetsadakone was not booked into jail. Hastings said the city prosecutor’s office initially declined to file charges against Phetsadakone after his arrest in September 2019, but filed a criminal case in June – 10 months later – charging him with resisting arrest.

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