Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Washtenaw sheriff’s sergeant acquitted in excessive force case

Paul Egan / The Detroit News

DETROIT — A federal jury on Wednesday acquitted a Washtenaw County sheriff’s sergeant of using excessive force at an Ypsilanti Township traffic stop in 2006.

Shawn Hoy, 37, embraced his lawyers, family members and a large number of Washtenaw officers who were in the courtroom to show support after the jury of eight women and four men delivered its verdict.

Jurors deliberated about two hours. The trial before U.S. District Judge Sean F. Cox began Dec. 2.

“I think it’s fantastic,” defense attorney Richard Convertino said of the verdict. “The charge should never have been brought.”

The verdict brings an end to three criminal cases related to a traffic stop early in the morning of June 1, 2006. Two officers, both represented by Convertino, were acquitted of brutality and civil rights violation charges. A third, Deputy Eric T. Kelly, pleaded guilty and awaits sentencing.

Prosecutors accused Hoy of striking Bruce Lee, 33, and of failing to stop Kelly from abusing Lee while officers were restraining Lee’s legs after the handcuffed man was removed from the back of a patrol car.

But Cox ruled at the end of the evidence portion of the trial, before the case went to the jury, that Hoy could not be held criminally liable for Kelly’s actions. It wasn’t clear Hoy saw Kelly twice kick Lee, let alone had time to stop him, Cox ruled.

Lee and his relatives were not in the courtroom when the verdict was read shortly before 4 p.m. Lee’s attorney, William Goodman, said jurors never got a full picture of what happened at the traffic stop. Lee has a federal civil lawsuit pending against officers involved in the stop.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Cares told jurors in his closing argument that Lee was removed from the patrol car in retaliation after he spat on Hoy.

Lee’s spitting and abusive language toward the officers can’t be condoned, Cares said.

However, “if (the spitting) was an assault, he should have been charged with it and taken to court,” Cares said.

“He should not be judged and he should not be punished by a group of officers in the middle of the night.”

Convertino told jurors that Lee had to be removed from the patrol car for his own safety and the safety of officers because he was thrashing around and trying to kick out the rear windows.

Hoy remained calm and professional throughout and “did it according to the book,” Convertino said.

Officers are trained to deliver a blow to the neck or high shoulder area to stun suspects so they can be restrained, Convertino told jurors. It’s not even clear Hoy’s blow aimed at Lee even struck him, but if it did, it was an appropriate use of force, he said.

Hoy has been suspended without pay for two years but now plans to return to work, Convertino said following the verdict.

Cares said he respected the jury’s verdict.

“These cases are always difficult,” Cares said. “It’s important that these cases go to the jury because it’s the jurors who are the ones who implement, through their decisions, the guarantees of the Constitution.”

Clifton Lee Jr., Bruce Lee’s brother, died from asphyxiation after a struggle with officers at the scene of the traffic stop. In November, a federal jury acquitted Deputy Joseph Eberle of using excessive force against Clifton Lee.

Neither brother was driving the vehicle stopped by police. Both arrived at the scene after their nephew, James Lee, was stopped.

Goodman said neither man did anything wrong except try to confirm that their nephew was O.K.