Seattle-Area Sheriff’s Office Settles Lawsuit for $80K, Will Apologize to Two Black Teens Wrongly Held at Gunpoint

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A Seattle, Washington, sheriff’s office has agreed to pay $80,000, as well as  offer a “sincere apology” to a pair of African-American teens who sued the department after they said they were wrongly held at gunpoint by deputies last year.

As part of the settlement, the King County Sheriff’s Office has also put into a place new use-of-force guidelines for when deputies can threaten drivers with lethal force, The Seattle Times reported.

King's County Sheriff's Office
Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht said she will apologize to a pair of African-American teens and absolve them of any wrongdoing in an incident in which they were held at gunpoint by police. (Photo: KOMO News / video screenshot)

The two parties reached an agreement after lawyers representing the teens and their families pushed the sheriff’s office to amend its use of force policy in order to comply with a ruling from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The court had previously put the department on notice that pointing a gun at an unarmed, cooperative driver amounts to “unconstitutional excessive force,” as it violates one’s Fourth Amendment protections against illegal search and seizure, according to the paper.

Before December 2018, the King County Sheriff’s office didn’t consider such incidents a reportable use of force offense.

That eventually changed — some nine months after the chilling encounter attorneys say left the two Black teens “traumatized.” The incident unfolded  June 19, 2018, outside a concert venue when King County deputy Corey Marcotte approached he what he thought was a stolen Jeep. In reality, it was another Jeep that was reported stolen, but that one had only been moved to another location. 

In a lawsuit filed last November, attorneys allege that Marcotte pointed his gun at the head of the 17-year-old driver inside, ordering, “Don’t you [expletive] move!” The teen, identified in court documents with the initials N.W., had just attended a Chris Brown concert with his friend, a 15-year-old  identified as P.B., and was waiting for his sister and their other friends outside the White River Amphitheater.

That’s when the deputy appeared. 

“N.W. heard the pistol cock,” the complaint read. “He turned his head and saw the pistol inches away from his head. He was looking down the barrel of the pistol.”

Meanwhile, P.B., who was sitting in the passenger seat looking at his phone, dropped the device and put his hands up. According to the suit, both teens asked Marcotte why he was pointing a gun at them, but the deputy refused to answer them.

Marcotte denied ever pointing his weapon, but acknowledged approaching the teen’s vehicle with his gun drawn. In his report, he wrote that the driver became “verbally uncooperative and asked me why I had my gun pointed at him.”

The boys gave a much different version of the event, however, describing how the deputy hurled expletives at them and gave conflicting orders for them to get out the car, shut it off and hand over the registration, all while still holding them at gunpoint.

“In that moment, N.W., who is African American, believed he was going to be shot,” according to the complaint. “Amid images of other African Americans getting killed he’d seen on television or heard about on social media, N.W. thought, ‘I can’t believe this is happening to me.’ “

N.W. complied with the officer, and was cuffed and handled so violently that he “involuntarily urinated on himself” out of fear.

A sergeant arrived at the scene 15 minutes later and located the vehicle’s registration only to realize that deputies had stopped the wrong car. The Jeep the teens were driving in was registered to N.W.’s mother.

The boys’ families took the department to court over the incident, arguing that it showed a clear “pattern and practice” by the sheriff’s office “of allowing its officers to threaten lethal force during felony traffic stops” in instances where the driver is compliant and poses no threat to the responding officer.

The settlement, which still needs approval by a federal judge, includes a cash payment of $80,000. Both N.W. and P.B. will be awarded part of the payout, receiving $30,000 and $20,000, respectively. Their legal team, the Seattle-based MacDonald Hoague & Bayless, will also receive $30,000.

Under the terms of the agreement, King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht has also agreed to apologize for her office’s involvement in the incident and will pen a letter absolving the teenagers of any wrongdoing.

“By all accounts, both are outstanding young men with bright futures” who were simply caught in a case of mistaken identity, Johanknecht said.