City hit with civil rights lawsuit for September 2015 altercation
Several officers in the Newberg-Dundee Police Department, as well as their chief and the city of Newberg, are the brunt of a federal lawsuit alleging they violated the civil rights of a Newberg man in 2015.
In the complaint, filed Aug. 21 in U.S. District Court, Portland attorney Leonard Berman claims that his client, Justin Stauffer, was illegally roughed up by police after he was reported drunk and was asked to leave First Street Pub on Sept. 7, 2015.
Stauffer did leave under his own power, the complaint says, but was confronted in the alley behind the establishment by Officers Nathan James, Eric Stone, Paul Rapet, Carl Busse and Chris Rasmussen.
"Rather than peaceably speak with him and cite him in lieu (of arrest) if at all, (the officers) all arrested him with force," the complaint alleges. "James hugged him around the waist and took Stauffer to the ground. Eric Stone, per reports, made multiple focused blows to the head and neck while plaintiff was on the ground and on his back. Plaintiff was told to stop resisting and he responded he was not resisting. However, officers disagreed."
The complaint further alleges that once on the ground, Stauffer was subject to repeated blows to the head with a flashlight and by hand.
As a result, the complaint alleges, the assault exacerbated prior injuries and post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) Stauffer suffered while in the military. Berman didn't provide, in the complaint or otherwise, records of Stauffer's military record, but said his client is receiving treatment for his PTSD at Providence Newberg Medical Center. It is a claim that could not be verified due to federal regulations.
City Attorney Truman Stone said last week the city had received a copy of the complaint. As is typically the case, he said, the matter has been referred to the city's insurer, CityCounty Insurance Services, which has appointed attorney Steve Kraemer to represent the defendants. Stone and the police department will work in concert with Kraemer to defend the city.
"I cannot comment on the specifics of pending litigation," Stone said in a prepared statement. "I will note that police work is very difficult, requiring split-second decisions under adverse circumstances. Officers frequently deal with intoxicated or otherwise combative individuals and are required to use physical force to effectuate arrests. Each time an officer uses force, there is the potential that the officer and the city will be subjected to a claim."
Stone added that Berman is no stranger to Newberg in particular, nor municipalities in general as representing clients claiming excessive force has become a specialty for the Portland attorney. He has sued the city on a number of occasions.
Police Chief Brian Casey declined comment and referred questions to Stone, saying only "Unfortunately, we cannot comment on any pending litigation."
Berman initially agreed to comment for the story, but did not provide responses to this reporter's questions by press time Tuesday morning.
In the complaint, Berman is alleging four claims for relief from the court, particularly for wrongful detention, excessive force, unreasonable search and seizure, and a Monell violation, which holds the city accountable for the violating a plaintiff's constitutional rights.
The wrongful detention stems from the allegation that James threw Stauffer to the ground "without reasonable suspicion or probable cause," as guaranteed by the Constitution.
The excessive force allegations in the complaint are tied to the severity of his treatment while in custody, including "by grabbing him, and wrenching his arms behind his back injuring him, and Stone repeatedly hitting him over the head with a flashlight."
Stauffer is claiming his constitutional right not to suffer unreasonable search and seizure was violated by an officer grabbing him and searching his pockets for personal items.
The Monell violation is directed specifically at Casey, alleging that in his capacity as police chief he condoned and approved of the officers' excessive force and illegal search and seizure without sufficient probable cause or a reasonable suspicion that Stauffer had committed a crime. In fact, Berman argued, there is a history of such excessive force within the department.
"In the alternative, there exists a custom, unwritten policy or practice to use excessive force on citizens based on prior tort claims and actions against officers," the complaint states.
The city is liable for damages, Berman argues, because it didn't ensure that officers with the police department were properly trained to deal with citizens safely, failed to train officers in the safe restraint of citizens, failed to train officers on the legal basis for arrest and failed to use body cameras to document the event.
The lawsuit seeks $50,000 in punitive damages against each officer in the incident, as well as Casey and the city. If successful in court, Stauffer could receive $350,000 in punitive damages in addition to attorney fees.
The case has yet to be scheduled for a hearing in U.S. District Court.