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Jury clears three officers in civil trial

By Robin Y. Richardson
Feb. 7, 2014 at 11 p.m.

MARSHALL - After two hours of deliberations Friday, a jury in a civil lawsuit ruled in favor of the city of Jefferson, Marion County and three law enforcement officers accused of unlawfully detaining a woman during a November 2012 check welfare call.

Additionally, the jury determined Jefferson police officer Terrance Mems did not use excessive and unreasonable force when he used a stun gun on the plaintiff, Elizabeth Lawson, to force her to comply.

"I'm very proud of the verdict," said Marion County Sheriff David McKnight.

"It's an unfortunate situation," he said, noting his officers were trying to protect someone from committing suicide.

He said the verdict shows the the officers did what they were supposed to do, as peace officers, under the circumstances.

Jefferson Police Chief Joe Hall agreed.

"We're pleased with the verdict and believe the attorneys were able to present the evidence to tell the whole story, and (jurors) came to the conclusion that the officers had not done anything wrong," Hall said.

Lawson, whom officers believed were suicidal when they, responded to her home, filed the civil suit against the entities and officers claiming that the officers intentionally violated her constitutional rights when they responded to her home for a welfare check, detained her without probable cause, searched her home without a warrant and used a stun gun on her multiple times after transporting her to the county jail. She was seeking $500,000 in damages.

Lawson's attorneys declined to comment on the verdict Friday. Lawson told supporters in the courtroom as they embraced her that "it is what it is."

In closing arguments, the defense contended that because Lawson was suicidal, officers had a substantial reason to arrest her without a warrant so she could get a mental health evaluation at the jail.

"These five men's lives are at stake," said the county's attorney, Robert Davis, referring to deputies Chuck Rogers, David Quada, Mems, the sheriff and police chief.

Davis said the mental health evaluator noted that Lawson battled with a depressive disorder and referred to it as crippling.

"You become a danger to yourself, and that's what happened in this case," Davis said.

"In this case, we have to hate the illness but love the person who is ill, and that's what these deputies did," he said.

The city's attorney, Darren Coleman, said the case was about protective custody and officers' safety.

"The 911 caller, if you recall, every bit of the information he provided the dispatcher turned out to be true," said Coleman, referring to the call alerting dispatch that Lawson was suicidal and mentioned committing suicide.

"No reasonable police officer would leave her there in the condition she was in," Coleman said.

In regards to the stun gun, Coleman argued that Mems believed it was reasonable and necessary because Lawson was kicking jailer Dan Ross.

He reminded jurors of the squad car recording, in which Lawson said she was going to hurt herself and then sue the officers for it.

"I'm going to ask you to look at the credibility of Ms. Lawson," he told jurors.

Lawson's attorney, Carson Runge, said he wouldn't want any of the defendants responding to his home if he was in trouble because "they're coming through the back door with no warrant, no probable cause."

Justin Smith, also representing Lawson, contended that what the defendants did was wrong, and asked the jury to hold them accountable.

"Officers do not have the right to take people into detention or arrest them on a welfare check unless they have a reason to believe the person is mentally ill and pose a substantial risk to themselves or others," Smith argued.



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