Couple's lawsuit over Columbia SWAT raid dismissed

Tuesday, November 22, 2011 | 6:21 p.m. CST; updated 6:57 p.m. CST, Tuesday, November 22, 2011

COLUMBIA — A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit Monday filed against the city of Columbia and 12 police officers involved in a February 2010 SWAT raid in which two dogs were shot, one fatally.

Jonathan Whitworth was arrested during the raid on the house he shared with his wife and child in the 1500 block of Kinloch Court in southwest Columbia and later pleaded guilty to unlawful use of drug paraphernalia. His child, who was 7 at the time, was present during the raid.

Whitworth, his wife, Brittany Whitworth, and son were named as plaintiffs in the civil lawsuit in September 2010; they sought compensatory and punitive damages against the defendants, along with court costs and attorney fees. 

At that time, Whitworth's attorney, Milt Harper, said the injured dog had to receive emergency treatment, which cost $2,000.

In her ruling, U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey said the allegations made in the suit were not supported by evidence. The allegations included that:

  • SWAT officers "chased and pursued" one of the dogs;
  • Officers yelled at Brittany Whitworth and the child;
  • Officers unreasonably seized and detained Brittany Whitworth and the child;
  • The amount of force used in seizing them rendered the seizure unreasonable;
  • An officer used excessive force in kicking Jonathan Whitworth in the head and neck;
  • SWAT officers unreasonably seized property in violation of the Fourth Amendment by shooting the dogs and leaving bullet holes in the house;
  • The city violated the Whitworths' constitutional rights "by maintaining customs and policies exhibiting deliberate indifference to its citizens rights and by failing to properly train and supervise the defendants, who are (the city's) employees."

In her order, Laughrey wrote that although some arguments were persuasive, the evidence didn't support the allegations. The order granted summary judgment in favor of the officers and the city, meaning a decision was made based on evidence and statements without a full trial.

In the order, Laughrey said that even if the officers violated the Whitworths' rights in shooting the dogs, the Whitworths did not show that that was a clearly established right. She also said the officer's kicking of Whitworth was legitimate in making him comply with a police order.

Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton said dismissal of the lawsuit was appropriate.

"I just feel that it's an excellent outcome," he said. "I do not feel that the officers did anything that warranted a lawsuit, and obviously the judge agreed." 

The Whitworths' attorney, Jeff Hilbrenner, would not give his opinion on the lawsuit's dismissal but said the Whitworths are still deciding on whether to appeal the ruling.

"This case and the aftermath have been a burden on the family," he said. "They are deciding what the next appropriate step for them is."

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mike mentor November 23, 2011 | 9:57 a.m.

I am glad these officers were not held responsible for following orders. I am also glad that the way these orders are going to be given in the future has changed!

(Report Comment)
Cecil Caulkins November 23, 2011 | 10:01 a.m.

I hope that things have changed. I'll be inclined to believe it when I see it, as situations like this have occurred many times throughout the country and seem to keep occurring.

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