Judge Upholds Excessive Force Lawsuit Against SWAT Team
(CNSNews.com) - A 1996 case alleging excessive force by a La Plata County, Colorado SWAT team will be allowed to proceed, following a federal court ruling. The SWAT team, seeking evidence for a trial involving a barroom brawl, swarmed onto private property to search for a cowboy hat, shirt and cigarette packs.
The suit filed by 36-year old Samuel A. Heflin and several co-plaintiffs against the La Plata County sheriff's office alleges that 10 members of the SWAT team, dressed in camouflage fatigues and hoods, stormed Heflin's 64-acre ranch in Bayfield, Colorado in April 1996, forcing children at gunpoint to lie face down and aiming a laser-sighted weapon at a four-year-old.
Federal District Judge Lewis Babcock refused to dismiss the suit, saying that the issue of whether it was excessive to deploy a SWAT team to serve an arrest and search warrant was "genuinely in dispute."
Babcock also allowed the court to consider whether the SWAT team acted with excessive force in pointing weapons at children, and he denied the claims of local law enforcement officials that they were immune from suit because they are public officials.
Heflin, his wife Tonie, Kristy Dane, Randy Holland and Tessa Overdorff sued the sheriff's department for excessive use of force and violation of their constitutional rights on behalf of themselves and their minor children, Shelby Holland, Marty Holland and Anthony Holland.
During the search for the cowboy hat and other items, the SWAT team allegedly held several people at gunpoint, including the children. The items were being sought as evidence for a case arising from a brawl at Virginia's Steakhouse in Vallecito, Colorado two days earlier. Heflin was arrested and charged, but was later found not guilty.
Court documents showed that the search was authorized by Sheriff Duke Schirard, Undersheriff Robin S. Harrington and Deputy Sheriff Kelly Davis, who administers the county SWAT team. None of the items collected during the SWAT team raid were introduced at trial.
According to William Zimsky, Heflin's attorney, the SWAT team moved onto the ranch at about 7 p.m. on April 16, 1996, initially detaining three people at gunpoint and ordering them to lie face down, including an eight-year old who was playing basketball at the time of the raid.
Another deputy later discovered a 14-year old boy on the property and ordered him at gunpoint to do the same. According to court documents, deputies then entered the house after 4-year old Shelby Heflin ran screaming into the home.
The child's mother, Kristy Dane, testified that sheriff's deputies followed the child into the house pointing a laser-sighted weapon at her back. In court depositions, the deputy in question did not deny that the laser sight had been pointed at the child's back, though he claimed that he did not deliberately aim it at her, according to Zimsky.
The plaintiffs claim that the SWAT team did not knock or announce their presence before entering the house, as required by law. La Plata County officials dispute that claim. Upon taking the Heflin house, the SWAT team then ordered everyone to lie face down on the ground and told Heflin several times to "shut the [expletive] up" when he asked to see a search warrant.
A sheriff's deputy testified at the trial that Harrington refused to send a deputy to arrest Heflin and collect the shirt, hat and cigarettes, saying that she wanted to send the "SWAT team to go get the piece of [expletive]. He can't do that in my county."
Heflin has no criminal record.
Zimsky called the SWAT team action "inexplicable,' considering Heflin's visibility in the community, the nature of the evidence sought, Heflin's contention that he had attempted to break up the bar fight and the readily-identifiable nature of Heflin's face, which was severely scarred in an oil-rig accident as a younger man.
"It's not like they were going in there to get drugs or some other easily destroyed piece of evidence. What were they going to do, flush the cowboy hat down the toilet?" Zimsky told CNSNews.com.
A trial date was originally set for April 13, though motions filed by the La Plata County Attorney's office need to be ruled on, delaying the trial to an unspecified date.
Bill Mullins of the La Plata County Sheriff's Department told CNSNews.com that the department would have "no comment while the case was in litigation."