Thurman King, a 55-year-old Black man, was driving from work to his home in Rockford, Michigan, a predominantly white suburb of Grand Rapids, late one night in March 2019.
When he got about a half block from home, he noticed a police car with its lights flashing behind him. He pulled into his driveway and got out of his car to ask why he was being stopped.
Moments later, King was tackled, handcuffed and arrested, according to a federal lawsuit he recently filed seeking monetary damages for what he says was an unwarranted arrest.
Grand Rapids attorney Stephen Drew lodged the lawsuit March 19 on King’s behalf in the U.S. District Court’s Western Michigan district. King is suing the city of Rockford and the Rockford Department of Public Safety. Zachary Abbate and Jason Bradley, the two officers who allegedly abused him, are also listed as defendants in the complaint.
The lawsuit alleges the two officers violated King’s constitutional rights by arresting him for unsubstantiated traffic violations and falsely incarcerating him without probable cause. The suit goes on to allege Bradley and Abbate assaulted and battered King. His attorneys assert that the city of Rockford and its consolidated public safety agency are liable for the officers’ actions and contends each of the defendants denied King due process.
“Stopping someone just because you can, and putting information in a police report about something that is not accurate — that he ran through a stop sign — leads to difficulties that should not have to occur to someone just because they’re driving while black trying to get home,” Drew told Atlanta Black Star. “As black men, myself included, my sons included, we’ve all had times where we have been stopped when there has been no reason.”
Drew argued that because of their negligence in falsely arresting King, Bradley and Abbate shouldn’t be afforded statutory immunity, a legal roadblock that, in many instances, shields state and local government officials from being sued civilly for actions they take while performing their official duties.
Abbate is no longer a Rockford police officer. Bradley, however, still serves on the force, the officers’ attorney Michael Borgen told Wood TV News Channel 8.
In a statement to News 8, Rockford city officials denied the claims in King’s lawsuit.
“While we do not intend to try this case in the court of public opinion, we disagree strongly with the claims as presented here. We intend to present a vigorous defense in this matter,” the statement said.
According to the 23-page tort claim, King was driving home from work late the night of March 20, 2019, when Abbate spotted him and began trailing him in his police cruiser. He was heading northbound on River Street just before 11 p.m. when he came to a stop sign at the intersection of Bridge Street. Abbate activated his blue lights after he claims King ran the stop sign.
King pulled over in his driveway and got out of his car. Abbate told him, “You know I know you, right,” according to the lawsuit. He claimed he pulled King over because his license plate light wasn’t working and alleged that King didn’t come to a full stop at the stop sign.
King says he knew he had stopped and became worried about Abbate’s intentions for the traffic stop. He suspected the cop was lying.
“I was scared, you know. Plain and simple. I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong and this guy followed me for several blocks before he even turned on his lights,” King told Atlanta Black Star during an interview Tuesday. “My thing was I just wanted to get into my home,” King said. “Somewhere to feel safe because no one was around.”
King’s suspicions proved accurate, according to his complaint. The dashboard camera in Abbate’s cruiser showed that King came to a complete stop at Bridge Street.
At one point, Abbate claimed King smelled like marijuana. “Man, look, why you lying for?” King could be heard responding to the officer on the footage.
When Abbate later said, “I smell weed on you,” King told the officer, “I got a joint in my pocket, man.”
Recreational marijuana was legalized in Michigan in 2018. The state has no legal limit for how much THC, the intoxicating chemical in weed, can be in a person’s blood while driving. But Michigan lawmakers recently introduced a bill to set a THC driving limit of 5 nanograms per milliliter of blood, the Detroit Free Press reported.
King said he knew he didn’t smell of marijuana because hadn’t smoked any marijuana that evening. He said the officer’s claim made him panic because he knew Abbate wasn’t telling the truth.
According to Drew, lab tests backed up King’s claim. The tests showed he had just 1 nanogram of pot per milliliter in his system the night of the traffic stop, indicating he was well below any levels of serious intoxication.
Abbate continued to badger King, who grew afraid and yelled out for his fiancée, who was inside the house. Bradley showed up on scene midway through the encounter to back up Abbate, who at one point threatened to zap King with a stun gun if he didn’t get back in his car.
“What are you doing, man?” he asked Abbate as the officer tugged at his jacket. “I’m saying, why are you doing this to me?”
The dashcam footage showed Abbate grab King and swing him to the ground as he called out for help. King screamed after he was wrestled to the ground. When Abbate tackled him, King said he landed face down on the pavement. Seconds later, Bradley kneeled on his back, knocking the wind out of him.
“All of a sudden, I felt this huge amount of weight on my upper back, man. A leg in my back and I couldn’t breathe,” he said.
The two officers arrested King and detained him. After King was cuffed and in the back of Abbate’s cruiser, the officer asked him to take a chemical test that could detect the presence of any intoxicating controlled substances in his body. King refused.
Abbate told King he was arresting him for operating his vehicle with the presence of a schedule I drug. It wasn’t clear what kind of drug he alleged was in the vehicle.
The officer later explained that the situation escalated because King continued to pull away from him and yell for his fiancée.
“You’ve got to listen to me, bro,” Abbate said as he shoved King in the squad car. “I gave you more than enough chances.”
King said he didn’t see Abbate following behind him until he turned on his block and said he pulled into his driveway to keep from stopping in the middle of the roadway. He couldn’t understand why the officer physically restrained him.
“That’s what I’m saying, why was you grabbing on me? You know I get off work at this time every night,” King told Abbate.
King was eventually taken to the Kent County Jail, where he spent 14 hours in lockup.
While in custody, jailers drew blood from King. The tests showed he had no alcohol in his system.
After he was released, King went to an emergency room and was treated for a head injury, abrasions, neck strain and a sprain to his left elbow.
On May 9, 2019 — 50 days after the traffic stop — King was charged with operating vehicle while intoxicated, open alcohol container and a felony count of assaulting/resisting/obstructing a police officer.
Litigators from the Kent County Prosecutor’s Office reviewed dashcam footage of King’s arrest in late June 2019 and filed motion to dismiss his charges in the “interest of justice” on July 2, 2019.
“If you blatantly falsify a reason for stopping just because you can, then the message that we hope to send is there needs to be some accountability for that,” Drew said. “There needs to be some accountability to the department. Because if you have a department where they feel they can do that, where there’s a camera that shows that he wasn’t, then that needs to be addressed so that this doesn’t keep happening.”
King’s lawsuit indicates he was forced to miss 45 days of work as a result of the arrest, resulting in lost wages. He also had to pay a fine for refusing to submit to Abbate’s chemical test.
The complaint insists Abbate and Bradley “acted in a deliberate, grossly negligent, and/or reckless manner when they executed a false stope, seizure and arrest.”
Had had to undergo surgery for a hernia and still has lingering back issues. But King said the psychological issues far outweigh any of the physical and emotional trauma he endured. The sight of a police car triggers his anxieties now, and King said his wife even gets antsy when they encounter law enforcement now.
“You see things like this happen, interactions between Black men and the police, and you never think you will be in a situation like that,” King said. “So when I seen the video again a couple weeks ago, for the first time since the incident happened, it affected me so emotionally. It makes me angry. It’s just — it’s just unfair. I’m just trying to live every day, man, like everybody else. I’m not in the streets. Fifty-five years old, man. And you just shouldn’t have to go through nothing like that.”