Excessive Force in Washington State: Mistaken shooting costs county $3M

Published: June 27, 2013
by Christine Clarridge - The Seattle Times
Original Article

The Seattle Times reports on an egregious incident of excessive force in Washington State:

King County has agreed to pay $3 million to a man who was severely injured when he was shot by a King County sheriff’s deputy and an officer with the Department of Corrections.

Dustin Theoharis was unarmed and in bed Feb. 11, 2012, when he was shot 16 times by the officers looking for another resident of the Auburn-area home, a man sought in a Department of Corrections (DOC) probation violation, according to court documents.

Theoharis, then 29, was not a suspect, did not display a weapon and did not have access to a weapon when the officers woke him, his attorneys said in a statement announcing the settlement Thursday.

“Officers entered his residence without permission (and without knocking on his door), as he slept in his bed,” the statement said. “They went into his room with their guns drawn.”

Some initial reports indicated one officer claimed he thought Theoharis had reached for a gun, but according to a review by the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office the only item found in Theoharis’ bed was a black metal flashlight, 5 inches long and 1 inch wide.

Next to the bed, within reaching distance, was an end table filled with aluminum cans and a variety of objects, including two black remote controls, the statement said. The gunshots were directed to that side of the bed, a forensic examination showed.

Prosecutors ultimately declined to file criminal charges against Deputy Aaron Thompson or DOC Specialist Kristopher Rongen, both of whom invoked their Fifth Amendment right to remain silent during the investigation.

King County Sheriff John Urquhart said one of the first things he did when he took office in November 2012 was to conduct an analysis of what happened so he could understand what led to the shooting.

“My review showed a flawed operation that should have had better supervision, better planning, and a better understanding of the roles and responsibilities when working with the Department of Corrections,” he wrote in an email Thursday evening.

He ordered additional training for detectives and deputies and suspended any similar operations with the DOC.

“This was an extremely unfortunate incident which the Sheriff’s Office regrets deeply,” Urquhart wrote Thursday. “There is nothing I nor King County can do to make Mr. Theoharis “whole” again. Nevertheless, on behalf of the Sheriff’s Office I wish him the best and appreciate his willingness to come to a fair resolution of the case.”

The $3 million settlement resolves the claims against King County but does not address those against the DOC and its officer, according to Theoharis’ attorneys, Erik Heipt and Ed Budge.

“It was a DOC-led operation. It was the DOC officer’s decision to enter our client’s living area without permission or a warrant,” Heipt and Budge wrote in their statement about the settlement.

Theoharis, a refrigeration mechanic, was shot in the jaw, shoulder, chest, abdomen, both arms and both legs.

Despite multiple surgeries, he is permanently disabled and unable to work in his prior profession, his attorneys said.

The two officers, accompanied by two other sheriff’s detectives, went to the house to serve another man, Nicholas Harrison, with a DOC felony-arrest warrant for failing to report to community service. Harrison was also in the home with his father, other relatives and an informant.

Reports say the informant had not told the DOC that Theoharis was there as well.

After Harrison, 27, was taken into custody without incident, the two officers headed downstairs in the split-level home to investigate whether there was a gun in the house, according to the prosecutor’s review. About 10 seconds later, the shooting occurred, prosecutors said.

Representatives of the DOC could not be reached for comment, but the agency has previously found that its officer acted within policies.

Budge & Heipt is a law firm committed to obtaining justice for victims and their families who have suffered wrongful death or catastrophic injury due to police brutality and police misconduct in jail or prison. For cases such as wrongful death due to police shootings, Budge & Heipt can help. Please contact our office for a free consultation.

If you or a loved one has been a victim of serious injury and/or death at the hands of police or in jail or prison, tell us about your case.