A lawsuit has been filed against the City of Auburn and one of its police officers for the second time in less than six months. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, claims excessive force was used during a September 2019 traffic stop.
Lawyers for Khomphet Phetsadakone (47) filed the lawsuit in October (click to read full complaint). Phetsadakone is seeking relief by way of both general and punitive damages. The complaint includes a jury demand, requesting the suit be tried before a jury.
Phetsadakone was pulled over just before 12:30 am September 19 by Auburn Police officer Joe Michels. Michels allegedly followed and pulled Phetsadakone over because he had crossed the center line. The traffic stop happened in the 300 block of 6th St NE, off Auburn Way N.
Dashcam video reflects Michels repeatedly telling the driver to stop and turn the car off. He approaches the driver’s door with his gun drawn, holstering it when he contacts Phetsadakone. Michels informs him he is being audio and video recorded before asking for his license.
Phetsadakone asks why he was being pulled over after being asked for his license for the fourth time. Michels responds that he will tell him after he receives his license. An inaudible response can be heard from Phetsadakone before Michels opens the driver’s door, stating the man was under arrest. In his report, Michels states Phetsadakone told him “no.”
In quick succession, Michels reaches into the vehicle as Phetsadakone protests, saying, “hold on, hold on.” Michels repeats that Phetsadakone is under arrest and needs to put his hands behind his back. Holding and twisting the man’s wrist, Michels attempts to bring it behind his back, eliciting several loud “owes!”
Phetsadakone continues his protest, asking what the officer was doing. Michels states a final time as he pulls his seatbelt off; the man is under arrest before roughly pulling him from the vehicle. Phetsadakone lurches from the driver’s seat and is, according to the lawsuit, “slammed face-first on to the cement.”
Both Michels’ report and the lawsuit confirm Phetsadakone was unconscious and bleeding. The lawsuit states his orbital bone was broken.
From the time Michels approached the vehicle to the time was on the ground was approximately 59 seconds. The use of force in this incident was reviewed but did not prompt an internal investigation.
A Deliberate Indifference
The filed complaint claims Phetsadakone’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated “when [Michels] employed unreasonable force…while arresting him without any objectively reasonable belief that Phetsadakone posed an immediate threat of harm to himself or others.”
The City of Auburn and Auburn Police Department are accused multiple times in the complaint of having a ‘deliberate indifference.’ The lawsuit asserts that this indifference is caused by customs, policies, and practices of the city and department. It is this indifference, according to the lawsuit, that permitted the alleged violation of Phetsadakone’s Fourth Amendment rights.
The lawsuit further alleges that “systemic failures of the Auburn Police Department resulted in an unnecessary and unlawfully excessive use of force which left [Phetsadakone] unconscious, with a fractured orbital bone, and devastating mental and emotional injuries.”
Michels has used force at least ten times since the September 2019 traffic stop with Phetsadakone. He has one supervisory inquiry and one internal investigation in 2020. Both found Michels’ performance unacceptable.
A September 2020 internal investigation details Michels and a second officer contacting an individual passed out in his truck. Michels wakes the man up, and in his report states he informed him he was under arrest and to get out of the car.
The internal investigation summary memo describes that Michels “grabs the subject by the back of the head area with his right hand and forcibly pulls the subject from the car in a very quick motion. The subject lands face down on the pavement and was not able to brace himself, which caused his face to hit the pavement, causing injuries.”
Michels’ report states he observed what appeared to be a box cutter and baseball bat within reach of the subject.
The 2020 memo indicates from the time Michels “woke the subject up to the time he pulled him out of the car, 19 seconds elapsed.” The lawsuit indicates the time between Michels telling Phetsadakone he was under arrest and when he pulled him from the car was approximately 16 seconds.
During the internal investigation, Michels stated he felt his actions were appropriate “based on the resistance he was receiving and the fact there were weapons in the vehicle.”
Use of Force Review
The September 2020 summary memo references a review of Michels’ use of force after the 2019 traffic incident. The review was requested by then Chief Bill Pierson. “Based on [the September 2019] incident and other uses of force Michels has had, the chief asked Defensive Tactics instructors to look at all of Michels force since 2015 and make an evaluation.”
Among other observations, the review found Michels “fails to try and communicate effectively with suspects, or try to de-escalate the situation by using cover, concealment, distance and opening verbal dialog.“
Michels remains an active patrol officer with the Auburn Police Department.
City of Auburn Public Information Officer Kalyn Brady confirmed the city is unable to comment on the specifics of any pending lawsuit. Attorneys for Phetsadakone did not respond to a request for comment.
The city recently settled a lawsuit with the family of Isiah Obet. A third lawsuit is expected to be filed from the family of Jesse Sarey, the 26-year-old shot and killed in May 2019 by Auburn police officer Jeffery Nelson.