Local deputy sued in Fed Court for excessive force

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Sgt. Chris Eubank

Gatesville, TX – Jennifer Snoddy manages a condition involving chronic panic attacks with prescription medication, and when on the first day of December, 2012, she saw a suspicious person loitering at a neighbor’s house, she called the local police.

Patrolman Spencer Rowell of the Gatesville Police Department arrived in the middle of a shouting match between she and the person about whom she complained. According to a federal civil rights lawsuit, which alleges that police officers deprived she and her husband of due process of law and their civil rights, she told the suspicious person to “Shut up!” because he kept “yelling and threatening” her.

In a complaint filed November 18, 2014, in U.S. District Court at Waco, Mrs. Snoddy found “the responding officer was combative…from the beginning despite the fact that Mrs. Snoddy had called for assistance.” Rowell was employed as a jailer at the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office from January, 2013 until he either resigned or was fired in August of 2014 – the official record is unclear.

Rowell “put his hand in her face and yelled at her to stop,” the complaint states. She asked him why he did that. Rowell “unnecesssarily poked Mrs. Snoddy in the face and yelled, “I told you to shut up.”

As Officer Chris Eubank, who is now a patrol Sergeant for McLennan County Sheriff’s Office, arrived, Rowell was twisting her arm behind her back; Eubank allegedly grabbed her other arm. He once served as a Lieutenant in a division that looks after training, among other tasks, but turned in a resignation in March of last year before Sheriff Parnell McNamara persuaded him to remain employed. He then accepted a job as a sergeant in the Patrol Division, where he serves as a supervisor for “D” shift, a deep nights assignment involving 12-hour dusk to dawn work days, supervising a crew of as many as 8 men and as few as 5 on days when he is short-handed.

In the words of the federal civil rights complaint, “Despite the officer’s actions, Mrs. Snoddy did not become aggressive or hostile, but she simply continued to ask the officer why he was putting his hand in her face…

The two men threw Mrs. Snoddy onto the ground, injuring her back, and placed her in handcuffs.” Her 11-year-old son stood and watched. He ran inside and got his father out of the shower to see about his mother’s problems. Mr. Snoddy reportedly came outside “in minimal clothing,” and Eubank told him to “stop at the patrol car.” When he asked why his wife was under arrest, Eubank replied “sarcastically” that he would “find out later.”

The federal complaint alleges that’s when Eubank pulled out his TASER pistol and aimed it at Snoddy. “Without provocation and without warning,” Eubank shot Snoddy in the center of his chest and “continued holding the trigger” until the massive jolt of electrical current drove him to the ground. “Officer Eubank then stood over Mr. Snoddy, threatening to tase him again as they waited for the ambulance to arrive.” Eubank needed an Emergency Medical Technician to remove the barbed arrows embedded in Snoddy’s skin, according to the complaint.

When he got to the hospital, he found Eubank waiting for him there. He asked him why he followed the ambulance, and Eubank allegedly replied “that he was there to make sure he does not cause any trouble.”

Mrs. Snoddy claims she suffers from “two bulging discs” in her back as a result of being thrown to the ground. The officers released her at her home.

The suit alleges the officers tampered with evidence. Videotape of the arrest shows that the recording is “highly suspicious,” according to a forensic expert retained by the Snoddys to study its frames.

The expert witness reported that, “Several inconsistencies were noted. The L3 Communications Mobile Vision Recording systems are designed to automatically initiate recording upon acitvation of emergency alerts (lights, siren, etc)…The initial frame of both videos display active emergency lights on both vehicles with officers engaged with Snoddy on the ground. The fact that the video does not contain any of the events associated with the initial contact or tasing of Mr. Snoddy is highly suspicious.”

Though Police Chief Nathen Gohlke explained to attorneys conducting an investigation that the missing images were caused by “a downloading procedure that interrupted the recording,” according to the expert, “the examiner could not verify any available data or case evidence to support this claim.”

The complaint alleges a departmental violation because policy states that if any alternative to the use of the TASER may be found, officers should first try those remedies. “Here, Mr. Snoddy was already in complaince…Requesting information from law enforcement is not a cause for the excessive use of force.” Another provision demands that no TASER should be used if two or more officers are present, “unless the danger to the officers is such that physical restraint of the subject without the use of the TASER is too dangerous to the officers.”

An attorney from Beaumont, Texas, David E. Bernsen claims that excessive force may be proven to a jury by an injury “from the use of force that was clearly excessive to the need…” He further complains of an unreasonable seizure and false imprisonment without probable cause. “An arrest is a seizure…” of a person’s body. “Under the Fourth Amendment an arrest may only be made when a police officer has probable cause to believe that the person arrested has engaged in criminal conduct.”

The City of Gatesville is a co-defendant, according to Bernsen, because “The governmental entity adopted, or failed to adopt…promulgation of the policy by the City of Gatesville…with deliberate indifference to known or obvious consequences that violation of constitutional rights would occur and unconstitutional policy is the moving force behind the deprivation of the Plaintiff’s rights.”

As such, the lawsuit alleges, a violation of the couple’s Fourth Amendment rights to be safe from unreasonable seizure in the absence of a probable cause constitutes a violation of the Civil Rights Act, Title 42 of the United States Code § 1983, because the two police officers acted under color of state law and failed to establish a probable cause for their actions while altering evidence and “covering up the criminal and/or wrongful activities of Defendant Eubank and Defendant Rowell…”

The defendants have answered the complaint with the claim that they enjoy immunity from prosecution and that “…Defendants allege Plaintiffs’ own actions are the sole cause of Plaintiffs’ damages and demonstrate that Defendants’ actions are not the cause of the damages.”

If the case is tried in U.S. District Court, in their verdict, a jury will decide the question of qualified immunity as to the facts; and if they hand down a finding for the plaintiffs, assess the claims of actual money damages; pre-judgment and post-judgment interest; statutory attorney’s fees and expenses; punitive and exemplary damages against Officers Eubanks and Rowell “in an amount to be determined and as allowed by the Court;” costs of court; and “such other relief as the Court deems just and equitable including appropriate.”

Attorneys Roy L. Barrett and Joe Rivera of the Waco law firm of Nahan, Howell, Smith & Lee, PLLC, are representing the two officers and the City of Gatesville.

Local governments are covered by errors and omissions insurance to pay attorneys to defend against torte claims in the courts. Sheriff Parnell McNamara and McLennan County settled a federal lawsuit filed by 9 deputies of the department who were either dismissed, or demoted, their pay diminished, when he assumed command of the 350-person work force of professional peace officers, jailers, evidence technicians and clerks in January of 2013.

The reported settlement cost the insurance carrier $2 million in an amalgamation of damages, attorney’s fees and court costs, a $375,000 deductible of which was raised from a contingency fund of the yearly budget.

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