Excessive force case against Spokane County deputies headed to trial

Summary judgment is a no-go when the parties and percipient witnesses present differing versions of events. That’s why this excessive force case is headed to trial.

Shaun Rockstrom went into a WinCo grocery store with a bag of candy that he had purchased at a different store. When he started eating the candy, WinCo employees suspected that he was shoplifting. Security asked him to leave. As Rockstrom was exiting the store, he was approached by a trio of Spokane County sheriff’s deputies.

What happened next depends on who you ask.

According to Rockstrom, the deputies stopped him and asked for his identification. Shortly thereafter, the deputies turned off the dash cameras on their patrol cars, tackled him to the ground, and started punching him.

According to the deputies, Rockstrom was “very fidgety” when they asked for his identification. The deputies interpreted Rockstrom’s behavior as a sign that he was “under emotional distress, on drugs, or [was] attempting to hide something such as a weapon, or [was] planning an escape.” Rockstrom threw his wallet on the ground and “tried to walk away with his fists up in front of him.” The deputies then tackled Rockstrom to the ground. Rockstrom “actively resisted arrest.” One of the deputies punched Rockstrom as a “distraction technique” while another deputy applied handcuffs and leg restraints.

According to an eyewitness, the deputies stopped Rockstrom and asked for identification. Rockstrom produced two cards from his wallet and threw them on the ground in front of the deputies. Rockstrom then asked if he was under arrest. The deputies did not respond. Rockstrom attempted to walk away. The deputies then tackled Rockstrom to the ground and proceeded to punch him in the head and face. The witness did not see Rockstrom raise his fists or take other aggressive action toward the deputies.

Not surprisingly, Judge Peterson ruled that there were genuine issues of material fact for trial. In so ruling, Judge Peterson rejected the deputies’ argument that Rockstrom needed expert testimony from a police practices expert, which Rockstrom did not have, to survive summary judgment.

Judge Peterson also allowed a failure to train claim against Spokane County to proceed to trial. When viewed most favorably to Rockstrom, she concluded, the evidence might theoretically persuade a jury that the County “trains its deputies to use punches in the head against people for attempting to walk away from police.”

The case is Rockstrom v. Spokane County, et al., Case No. 18-CV-0197-RMP. Rockstrom is represented by Richard Wall of Richard D. Wall, P.S. The Spokane County defendants are represented by Heather Yakely of Kutak Rock.