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By Stacey Mulick
The Tacoma News Tribune

A Pierce County jury decided Friday that sheriff's deputies weren't at fault for their role in a 2004 car chase that injured bystander Dino Johnson.
The fleeing car deputies were chasing crashed into Johnson on April 22, 2004. Johnson, now 25, sued the Sheriff's Department, alleging the deputies violated department policy when they started the pursuit and didn't call it off when it became too dangerous to the public.
He sought nearly $1.4 million in damages for medical bills, pain and suffering related to the crash. The jury returned its verdict within four hours, finding in the county's favor.
Johnson's attorney argued Friday that deputies Scott Wheeler and Eric Carlson were angry at the suspects because they'd tried to hit the deputies. In doing so, attorney Christi Craven told jurors, they disregarded their rules and training.
"They were simply going on the passion of the moment," Craven said during her closing argument. "We are simply asking that you hold the Sheriff's Department accountable for their actions, or inactions in this case, and give Dino Johnson the justice he deserves."
Deputy prosecutor Ron Williams, representing the Sheriff's Department, reinforced his argument that the only two people to blame for the crash are the suspects - Lamar Stephens and Michelle Thompson - who hit Johnson's motorcycle after running a stop sign.
He argued that testimony about the Sheriff's Department's pursuit policy was a distraction.
"It does not change the obvious," Williams said in his closing statement.
Court records gave this account:
The deputies had gone to an apartment complex in the 7300 block of South Wilkeson Street to arrest Stephens on a warrant charging him with escape. They spotted him in the parking lot and ordered him to stop.
Instead, Stephens and Thompson jumped into a Dodge Intrepid. Thompson, who was driving, ignored commands and drove out of the parking lot at high speed, nearly hitting the two dep- uties.
The deputies chased the pair for more than five miles through the streets of Tacoma and unincorporated Pierce County. The Intrepid ran a stop sign and hit Johnson at 112th Street South and Yakima Avenue South.
Johnson, who was attending Pacific Lutheran University on an ROTC scholarship, suffered a broken arm, a broken leg, a broken pelvis and other injuries. He had six surgeries and his injuries have lasting impacts, Craven said. He was unable to become a U.S. military officer as he once dreamed.
The closing arguments focused, in large part, on the testimony of expert witnesses and the Sheriff's Department's pursuit policy.
Johnson's attorneys had an expert who contended the deputies failed to follow the department's policies on pursuits.
The deputies didn't abide by the 13 factors - including seriousness of the initial crime and its relationship to community safety, the public's safety, volume of vehicle traffic and road conditions - used to evaluate pursuits.
"They got caught up in the pursuit and ignored their training, police procedures, and put people at risk," Craven said. "The rules are to help take judgment out of the equation."
Williams countered that the deputies followed the mand- atory parts of the policies, which include communicating with supervisors and dispatchers, and used their best judgment as to whether to continue the pursuit.
The 13 factors are guidelines, not mandatory rules, Williams said.
"How do you judge judgment calls?" Williams asked. "Was their judgment reasonable?"

Wire Service
 
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