Craig Police Department loses $30,000 in lawsuit

Officers sued for battery, false arrest, false imprisonment

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— A Craig man was awarded $30,000 in a lawsuit against former Craig Police Department officer Donald Eric Cox.

Shannon Schwingdorf contended he was falsely arrested, falsely imprisoned and battered, and that Cox did all of those things willfully and wantonly.

On Nov. 1, 1997, Shannon Schwingdorf was allegedly bitten by his girlfriend at Village Inn restaurant in Craig. When officers arrived on the scene and asked to see the bite mark, Schwingdorf refused. Court documents state that after Schwingdorf refused to comply with officers, "Cox grabbed his arm in an attempt to physically force him to remove the jacket he was wearing to cover his arm. He was sprayed with pepper spray, handcuffed and arrested. He was taken to the Moffat County Jail where he was an inmate for 36 hours."

In his lawsuit, Schwingdorf claims he suffered from pain, suffering, physical injuries, humiliation, loss of liberty and that contact between he and Cox was harmful and offensive.

Schwingdorf was arrested on charges of second-degree assault, resisting arrest, obstructing a peace officer and disorderly conduct. All charges were later dropped by the district attorney, a fact that wasn't provided to the jury in the civil trial.

Officers alleged that Schwingdorf became physically aggressive during the investigation and swung a fist at Cox. Cox said he applied the pepper spray only after repeated warnings.

According to Schwingdorf's attorney, Kristopher Hammond of Oliphant, Hammond and O'Hara and Atwell of Steamboat Springs, there was no supporting testimony that Schwingdorf attempted to hit an officer.

Craig Police officer Wayne Neal Johnson and Sgt. Marvin Howard were also named as defendants in the lawsuit, but were dismissed because it was found their conduct wasn't "willful and wanton."

The Governmental Immunity Act protects officers from liability for their conduct unless their actions are shown to be willful and wanton, meaning they disregarded the rights, feelings and safety of others in a mental state that leads a person to act voluntarily.

Schwingdorf sued for $100,000 in damages, but his attorney is satisfied with the amount the jury awarded.

"The jury made its own decision and I can't ask for more than that," Hammond said.

A jury of six awarded $20,000 in damages for false arrest and false imprisonment, $2,000 for the count of battery and $8,000 for Cox's willful and wanton conduct. Schwingdorf had requested damages of $25,000 for being battered, $25,000 for being falsely arrested and imprisoned and $50,000 for willful and wanton conduct.

"I think the jury had a very tough job and worked hard to come to the verdict they did," Hammond said.

According to Hammond, the case was based on the testimony of eyewitnesses. He called two and the defense called five.

"The jury believed that my client's perception of the event was correct," Hammond said. "I don't think the jury believed my client struck the officer."

There was a question of credibility from Cox, Hammond said, in that several times he testified differently than he did on a signed affidavit prepared before the trial. For instance, in the affidavit, Cox never mentioned that Schwingdorf attempted to hit him, but he did testify to that at the trial.

Cox is no longer an employee of the Craig Police Department, having quit in July. He left of his own accord, Police Chief Walt Vanatta said.

Vanatta said if Cox made a mistake in the incident, it was probably because he was not following the department policy manual. The current use of force policy is based on response to action, he said, meaning officers respond in kind to the level of force that is shown to them.

According to Vanatta, this case will be used as a training tool for other officers, giving them an idea of what they can do legally in the course of an investigation.

Attorneys hired by the department insurance company defended the suit.

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