State judge imposes $300,000 sanction on county for hiding emails in police brutality case
Date: Thursday, September 20, 2012
In January 2010, King County, Washington shelled out $10 million to the family of Christopher Harris – an Olympia man, now eating through a feeding tube, who was tackled into a brick wall by a police officer who wrongly identified him.
It was the largest personal injury settlement in the county’s history. Now, newly uncovered e-mails and additional e-discovery has put the county in an even worse position, to the point that a judge calls county employees’ the conduct “reprehensible.”
Judge Stephanie Arend, of Pierce County Superior Court, imposed a $300,000 penalty against the county for failing to produce emails showing Deputy Sheriff Matthew Paul, of the King County Sheriff’s Office, had a history of using excessive force. She has scheduled an evidentiary hearing to determine how the emails may have hurt Harris’s case.
Hidden emails show pattern of violence
On the night of May 10, 2009, while walking through a Seattle neighborhood Harris was incorrectly identified by Paul and another officer as a suspect in a nearby bar fight. Harris fled, say his attorneys, because the officers did not identify themselves.
He slowed to a stop after a three-block chase and Paul tackled him, knocking Harris’s head against a brick wall. A surveillance camera captured the incident.
The Harris family sued the county in November 2009, and settled for $10 million in January 2010. The emails did not surface until much later when reporters from a local television station began investigating the officer’s past.
The e-mails depict a pattern of excessive force and concerns expressed by Paul’s superiors about whether he should continue to serve on the county police force in view of his aggressiveness. The attorney for Harris says he would have filed a federal civil rights suit seeking a greater award if the e-mails had been disclosed. In December, he filed a motion asking for sanctions and an additional $3.3 million in compensatory damages.
“We respect the judge’s decision,” Sergeant Cindi West, of the King County’s Sheriff’s Office, told ACEDS.org. “But we did not intentionally withhold anything. We wish the best for Christopher Harris’s family.”
The case is being heard in Pierce County to minimize the impact of publicity. Paul is still employed by the Sheriff’s Office.
Judge levels withering criticism at Sheriff's Office for failures
Although the Sheriff’s Office says it did not hide the emails, Judge Arend said at a September 14 hearing that its “callous indifference” in producing them was tantamount to concealment and bad faith conduct.
“This reckless indifference in its failure to produce these three documents – documents that were indisputably relevant – is the functional equivalent of intentional misconduct,” she says in her order imposing sanctions.
“Any competent electronic discovery effort would have located this email,” the judge said, noting that the Sheriff's Office did not produce the emails “because no one conducted an electronic search for documents.”
Simeon Osborn, the attorney for the Harris family, at Osborn Machler, in Seattle, did not respond to several requests for comment. Timothy Gosselin, attorney for the King County Sheriff’s Office, in Tacoma, did not respond to a request for comment.
Finding e-mails is like finding ‘needle in a haystack’
The case is another example of how emails have emerged as a flashpoint and determinative factor in high-profile lawsuits. It highlights how electronic data provides evidence beyond what paper affords and how mishandling it leads to monetary penalties and reputational harm.
In-house lawyers at the sheriff’s office said they directed the staff to search paper but not electronic documents. Looking through the electronic documents would have been like searching for “a needle in a haystack,” Gosselin told reporters in February.
“The scope of the search was very large,” Sergeant West told ACEDS, citing the 25 sheriff’s office substations in King County.
“Part of the issue is that [Paul] has worked for many people over the course of his career,” she said. “But the people who sent the emails were not his direct supervisors.”
Officers ‘aggressive’ behavior was noted in training academy
The Harris family had requested Paul’s entire file, but the Sheriff’s Office did not produce the critical emails until after a settlement was reached. Judge Arend ruled that the county also should have produced records related to previous complaints against Paul. From the time of the settlement, 19 use of force cases and 7 civil complaints of excessive force against Paul have surfaced.
A previously undisclosed 2007 email chain between Paul’s supervisors at the Basic Law Enforcement Academy expressed concern that the officer had used force “far above the norm” when he was running drills with a smaller female officer. Paul displayed a “macho type demeanor not acceptable to our goals,” Commander Ron Griffin wrote to one of Paul’s supervisors.
Paul “exhibited behaviors that were a concern” and the academy “no longer wish[ed] to use him,” the emails said.
In its motion for sanctions, the Harris family said the sheriff’s office “showed deliberate indifference to Deputy Paul’s use of excessive force.”
The family argues that the emails would have changed the trajectory of the case if they had been produced in a timely fashion.
Prior similar conduct crucial when suing government agencies
“Emails are extremely important when you’re suing a large entity in these types of suits,” says Chris Davis, a personal injury attorney in Seattle who is familiar with the case. “In a lot of personal injury cases, you’re trying to show what these entities knew beforehand.”
Davis says the burden of proof for the plaintiff is often higher when the defendant is a government person, such as a police officer. Establishing a pattern of behavior or showing that supervisors were aware of certain risk factors is crucial, he adds.
“The emails show that the county Sheriff's Office was put on notice of the problem,” Davis told ACEDS.
Had the Sheriff’s Office produced the emails earlier, Harris’s family would have likely sued in federal court. That’s the path another of Paul’s alleged victims took. In a May 2010 incident, Paul tackled a man, Jeffrey Gold, who was taking pictures of officers handling an intoxicated person. Gold, whose nose was broken, filed a lawsuit against Paul, the sheriff, and the county in a Seattle federal court in February, alleging civil rights abuses.
A jury trial in that case has been set for April.