By Diana Hefley and Rikki King Herald Writers
LAKE STEVENS — A Snohomish County man has filed a civil rights lawsuit against Lake Stevens and two of the city’s police officers, alleging that he was unlawfully arrested at home last year, the day after one of the off-duty officers threatened to cite him for reckless driving while in the city of Marysville.
The lawsuit was filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Seattle after city officials didn’t respond to a claim for damages submitted in September by Brandon and Tiffany Fenter.
“The city has to know its cops can’t do this,” said Justin Monro, an attorney from Lake Stevens. “The problem is you have cops going into a home without a warrant.”
An internal investigation of the incident was conducted, City Administrator Jan Berg said. She would not say what the status of that investigation was, or whether the officers were ever put on leave or re-assigned. Both remain city employees, she said.
Former Lake Stevens Police Chief Randy Celori concluded that the arrest was legal, according to a letter sent to Fenter in May, nearly a year after the incident.
“Although the action of my officers may have been in compliance with (state law concerning arrests without warrants), I do find that the actions were not at the high level of professionalism I expect from my officers,” Celori wrote. “I have and will be taking appropriate action to improve the performance of the officers involved and ensure similar incidents of this nature are not repeated.”
The letter indicates that Fenter’s complaint may have been sent to the local FBI office for review. It’s unclear who asked for the FBI involvement and whether federal agents ever investigated the complaint.
City officials received the lawsuit Thursday, Berg said. She declined to answer any additional questions until further consultation with the city’s attorneys.
The incident unfolded over two days, according to the lawsuit. The Fenters were driving along 83rd Avenue NE in Marysville on June 20, 2011, when they encountered Steve Warbis, an off-duty Lake Stevens police officer. The officer was walking with his family on the side of the road. Fenter claims that Warbis jumped into the roadway and waved him down.
“He was walking on the wrong side of the road and thought my client was driving too fast,” Monro, the Fenters’ attorney, said.
Fenter stopped and Warbis reportedly began questioning the Lake Stevens man. He allegedly told Fenter he was going to send him a citation in the mail for reckless driving.
He told Fenter “it was good as done,” court papers said.
The officer didn’t ask for Fenter’s license or vehicle registration and allowed the man to drive off.
Instead of getting a summons in the mail, the Fenters say that Warbis and fellow Lake Stevens police officer James Wellington showed up at their home the next day. The couple was sitting down to dinner with their young daughter when they saw two uniformed officers peering through the back gate, court papers said.
Warbis reportedly asked, “Remember me?”
The Fenters claim that the officers began to threaten and curse at Brandon Fenter, ordering him to come out of the house. The Fenters say the officers then kicked open the gate, breaking off the latch. They handcuffed Fenter in front of his wife and child.
The lawsuit alleges that the officers didn’t have a search warrant and didn’t have permission to enter the Fenters’ property. They were not acting under emergency circumstances that would have allowed them to enter the property without the Fenters’ consent, according to the lawsuit. Fenter didn’t have a warrant for his arrest, court papers said.
The officers “lacked probable cause to arrest, stop, search and detain Mr. Fenter in his residence without a proper warrant,” according to the lawsuit.
Fenter was booked into jail in Marysville. He was charged with reckless driving, a gross misdemeanor. City prosecutors later dismissed the charge.
The lawsuit alleges that Warbis and Wellington violated Fenter’s right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. It also alleges that the officers used unlawful force that constituted an assault when they handcuffed and shoved Fenter into the back of a patrol car.
Celori concluded that the amount of force the officers used was appropriate, according to his letter. The chief, however, apologized to Fenter, saying he was sorry for the “negative experience” Fenter had with the department.
“I am committed that we will continue to train and improve our level of service and provide the best law enforcement services to the community,” Celori wrote.
Celori resigned Nov. 5 “in lieu of termination,” according to a separation agreement signed between him and the city.
Berg on Thursday said the allegations and the lawsuit were unrelated to Celori leaving.
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; firstname.lastname@example.org.