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Friday Harbor woman sues San Juan County; alleges police brutality, unlawful search and seizure

A Friday Harbor woman is suing San Juan County in federal court, alleging two sheriff's deputies illegally searched her home, used excessive force and falsely arrested her on March 21.

Specifically, Toni Michele's civil suit — filed July 20 in U.S. District Court in Seattle — alleges unlawful search and seizure, unlawful imprisonment, negligence, and assault.

Sheriff Bill Cumming declined to comment Wednesday. "We reviewed the incident and passed it on to the prosecutor. They reviewed it, it went to risk management, and the status of the case precludes any other comment."

Michele, 45, alleges that on the night of March 21, Sheriff's deputies Nikki Rogers and Brad Korth went to her home after a neighbor called 9-1-1 and reported a domestic disturbance.

Michele and her boyfriend had had a verbal argument and the boyfriend left 15 minutes before deputies arrived, according to the lawsuit. Michele's attorney, Mark Kaiman of the Lustick Law Firm in Bellingham, said Michele was alone in her home when deputies arrived.

According to the lawsuit, Michele told Rogers that the domestic disturbance report was made in error, that there had been a verbal argument but there were no injuries and no property damage. Rogers questioned Michele about her alcohol use and asked to search the home, saying she was required by law to make sure no children were present and that there were no injuries or property damage. Michele declined to grant consent for the search and "demanded" the officers leave.

"Deputy Rogers forced her way into Ms. Michele's home without a warrant," Kaiman said. "Deputy Rogers then used her electric Taser gun on Ms. Michele, after the homeowner was tackled to the ground by Deputy Korth and handcuffed. Deputy Rogers then conducted an illegal search of Ms. Michele’s residence, which yielded nothing of evidentiary value."

Kaiman, a former Bellingham city prosecutor and former San Juan County deputy prosecutor, said officers could only search the home without consent if they had an "exigent" circumstance — "I can hear someone screaming, I see broken furniture, I see blood on the walls," he said.

Kaiman said that Rogers and Korth falsely arrested Michele and shoved her into a parked car and forced her face down into a gravel driveway.

Michele was charged with obstructing a police officer and assault in the fourth degree, but the prosecuting attorney's office dropped the charges on July 7, Kaiman said.

Michele filed a damage claim against San Juan County for $250,000, but that claim was rejected by county officials. Her lawsuit seeks unspecified damages, attorney fees and litigation costs, and may also include punitive damages against the county.

Kaiman called the deputies' behavior "appalling ... a direct result of poor training and an ongoing lack of supervision by Sheriff Cumming and San Juan County."

Korth and Rogers joined the San Juan County Sheriff's Department in 2007. Rogers had 10 years of experience as a law enforcement officer in Phoenix; Korth worked for the Idaho State Patrol and as a correctional officer, according to Cumming.

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