Washington Seattle asks judge to toss excessive force lawsuit

By Gene Johnson

Associated Press

SEATTLE (AP) -- The city of Seattle and two of its police officers asked a federal judge Wednesday to dismiss claims that they used excessive, racially motivated force against a man who was detained in a robbery investigation, but the judge made several comments suggesting he's inclined to let the case go to trial.

Lawyers for the city argued that while it was unprofessional for Officer Shandy Cobane to refer to the man's Mexican heritage while threatening to beat him up, it didn't violate the man's constitutional rights. Furthermore, they said, the level of force used -- Cobane and another officer, Mary Woollum, stomped on the man as he lay prone in a parking lot -- was justifiable under the circumstances.

The request to dismiss the claims brought by Martin Monetti Jr. comes as the Justice Department and the city continue difficult negotiations over changes to the police department. The DOJ last December determined that Seattle police engaged in a "pattern or practice" of using excessive force, often against minorities, and has threatened to sue the city unless it agrees to binding reforms overseen by an independent monitor and a federal judge.

Monetti's case itself was cited in the DOJ's findings: "It is troubling that the use of this racial epithet failed to provoke any of the surrounding officers to react, suggesting a department culture that tolerates this kind of abuse," the department said.

The incident was recorded by a freelance videographer. The video's wide circulation prompted a tearful apology from Cobane, who told a news conference, "I know my words cut deep and were very hurtful."

Monetti had been out celebrating his 21st birthday in April 2010 when he and two friends were confronted in a parking lot by police searching for suspects in two armed robberies. They got on the ground, lying on their stomachs as directed. Monetti, heavily intoxicated, seemed to have trouble following orders to keep his hands, feet and head still. The men had not been searched, and police had not yet located the gun and machete used in the robberies.

Cobane stepped hard on Monetti's hand, and from the video it appears his foot also made contact with Monetti's head, though the city's lawyers dispute that. They characterized the move as a department-taught "foot sweep" to gain control of Monetti. Even if Cobane had deliberately kicked Monetti in the head, assistant city attorney Brian Maxey suggested, it would have been a reasonable use of force under the conditions.

But Monetti's lawyers say he clearly posed no threat to the officers, who easily could have handcuffed him, as they had done to one of his friends, and searched him to see if he was armed. The use of racial language in connection with unnecessary force could allow a jury to conclude that the stomping was racially motivated, Monetti's lawyers said, and therefore his claims should be allowed to go to trial.

"We think this is very important for the jury to hear," said one of his lawyers, Lorena Gonzalez.

U.S. District Judge Ricardo S. Martinez said he planned to rule late next week on the dismissal motion, but at one point he questioned Maxey's assertions that the use of force was reasonable, suggesting that question should be left to a jury. The judge also made comments about how the claims might be streamlined for a jury's consideration, and how jury instructions might be given in the case.

Published: Fri, Jun 15, 2012