Ogden woman loses four-year civil rights case stemming from SWAT standoff

Wednesday , September 27, 2017 - 1:42 PM

MARK SHENEFELT, Standard-Examiner Staff

OGDEN — Police have prevailed in a four-year court fight over an Ogden woman’s allegations she was assaulted and falsely imprisoned after a gun battle between officers and her intoxicated fiance.

Stacee Chivers’ lawsuit accused local authorities of employing unwritten protocols governing officer-involved shootings, which she contended empowered police to violate innocent victims’ and bystanders’ civil rights.

RELATED: Distraught fiancee says Ogden police overreacted in Sunday's shootout

Chivers called 911 at 2:30 a.m. Nov. 11, 2012, saying her fiance, Aaron Matthew Collier, 35, was extremely drunk and out of control. After a shootout with responding Ogden officers and a three-hour SWAT standoff, Collier shot himself to death, according to court records.

Chivers filed suit Nov. 4, 2013, against the Ogden Police Department, the Weber County Sheriff’s Office and 23 other defendants, including a Utah Highway Patrol trooper and members of the Ogden Metro SWAT Team.

She charged her constitutional rights were violated when a UHP trooper arriving to back up the Ogden officers forced her to the ground, kneeled on her back, handcuffed her and kept her in the back of his patrol car for half an hour. She was then taken to the Ogden police station, which she said amounted to false imprisonment. 

But in a 73-page ruling filed Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Jill Parrish in Salt Lake City dismissed the suit. She wrote that police were entitled to qualified immunity, which “shields public officials from damages actions unless their conduct was unreasonable in light of clearly established law. ... Thus, qualified immunity protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law."

Parrish said police presented sufficient evidence that handcuffing and detaining Chivers was not outside normal practice in such volatile situations. Further, the judge said, police demonstrated Chivers consented to go to the police station to be interviewed.

Chivers’ attorneys had argued that a combination of written and unwritten protocols among local police agencies are used to protect officers involved in shootings “from claims of civil and criminal liability, to build cases against suspects reasonably suspected of having committed a criminal offense, and to build cases against victims and witnesses not reasonably suspected of having committed any offense.”

Under the protocols, “victims and other witnesses not reasonably suspected of having committed any offense are presumed guilty, and they and their property are treated accordingly,” Chivers’ attorneys said in court documents.

“Unwritten practices and customs ... include the uniform practices of ...  detaining witnesses with excessive force, and without probable cause to believe a crime has been committed and without an arrest warrant or voluntary consent, transporting detained witnesses to law enforcement offices for further detention and formal interrogation in order to build cases against witnesses.”

Chivers’ suit accused officers of using “schmoozing and confusing” tactics to get Chivers away from the scene so SWAT could shoot tear gas into her home and nullify Collier as a threat. Police should have obtained a warrant before breaching the home, and they caused heavy damage to the dwelling, Chivers alleged.

Parrish, however, rejected claims of conspiratorial behavior by police.

Chivers, she said, “was neither under arrest nor suspected of any crime, yet she was technically detained for purposes of safety and maintenance of the status quo during an ongoing standoff. There is no indication (that Chivers) would have been free to exit (the UHP cruiser) and wander around the scene while officers ringed the home with weapons and Collier remained barricaded in the home.”

The judge added there was no indication officers intended to arrest Chivers or detain her beyond the time necessary to resolve the standoff.

Parrish discounted Chivers’ theory police deliberately coordinated Chivers’ being taken to the police station with the timing of the tear gas and home breaching operation that ended the standoff.

“Her consent was not necessary to allow the SWAT operation to proceed,” Parrish said.

The judge said she also found nothing to validate the plaintiff’s suspicions of unfair treatment of innocent people at SWAT scenes.

“While the actual written document outlining procedures and protocol for officer-involved shootings does not differentiate between witnesses and suspects, it does not expressly require or otherwise authorize transportation of non-suspect witnesses without their consent,” the judge wrote. “In fact, the document requires that the investigation ‘follow the rules of law which apply to all criminal proceedings including constitutional, statutory, and case law ...’”

Asked for reaction to Parrish’s ruling, Chivers’ attorney, Paul Mortensen, said he needed more time to absorb the complex opinion and decide whether an appeal would be filed.

“I can say that it’s premature for me to say what I feel about it,” Mortensen said.

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net or 801 625-4224. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SEmarkshenefelt.

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