A Tulsa man’s excessive force lawsuit related to his arrest in 2017 can proceed, a judge ruled last week, saying evidence — including statements in at least one police officer’s deposition — could lead a jury to conclude that police showed a “reckless disregard” for the man’s constitutional rights.
In a pointed opinion, U.S. District Judge Claire Eagan said Jack Morris “met his burden to come forward with evidence” because there are “genuine disputes” about the circumstances surrounding his August 2017 arrest.
Morris filed suit in 2018 against the city of Tulsa, as well as Police Sgt. Kurt Dodd and Officers Anthony First and Brian Dupler, after saying he sustained a broken arm during his arrest and had to have several stitches.
The officers, who were in the process of searching for unrelated theft suspects, were at Morris’ property because they believed one of those suspects was hiding in Morris’ barn in midtown Tulsa, they said. Morris told the Tulsa World previously that the encounter turned physical at some point after the officers told him he could not go onto his property to check on one of his horses.
Morris has written articles for the World’s Outdoors section based on his experiences and observations as a hunting and fishing guide.
Although he initially faced a felony charge of assaulting a police officer, he later entered pleas to misdemeanor counts of obstruction and resisting arrest, for which he’s already completed the terms of his deferred sentence.
“It is undisputed at some point in the encounter that Dupler struck Morris multiple times in the head and that Morris’ left arm was broken, and Morris has come forward with evidence that he was not actively resisting arrest when force was used against him,” Eagan wrote.
Video footage of the incident does not show the altercation, but the officers can be heard discussing the aftermath, along with the possibility that Morris would pursue a civil case against them. At one point, one of the officers is heard saying, “Like literally, it was just a good (use of force). You sprayed him. We got him in custody. He’s probably still gonna try to sue us just because he’s an asshat and he’s got money.”
Eagan’s opinion says officers in Dupler’s chain of command determined that Dupler’s conduct was within the Tulsa Police Department’s use of force policy.
But Morris’s attorney, Ben Fu, said Friday afternoon that the suit also hopes to raise questions about the objectivity of the Police Department’s internal investigation process for disciplinary proceedings because it does not appear to include perspectives of people who aren’t officers, such as his client.
Fu also said the collective bargaining agreement between the city of Tulsa and the Fraternal Order of Police allows for the periodic removal of reports from an officer’s file if misconduct allegations are “not sustained or unfounded.” He added that even some sustained disciplinary actions can be removed from those files after a period of time.
Eagan found that Dupler’s personnel file has eight instances “suggesting” that documents were removed from it pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement.
Dodd, Dupler and First argued in court that their use of multiple types of physical force and pepper spray was reasonable because Morris was “assaultive” and the three were struggling to restrain him. But while Eagan said the case could go before a jury, she wrote in her opinion that “police suspected Morris of committing a minor offense and it is not clear that he posed any immediate danger to police officers or the public.”
“In fact, Morris has presented evidence suggesting the police officers needlessly set up a perimeter and they were denying him access to his own property without any reasonable basis to believe that the suspect was in the barn,” she wrote, adding that Morris is alleging that the officers made the altercation physical first.
Eagan said the officers “have submitted affidavits to support their version of the facts, and they disregard conflicting evidence submitted by Morris or sometimes even by the affiant’s own deposition testimony.”
A trial in Morris’ civil case is set for January.
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