Auburn, Wash., resident Dustin Theoharris could end up costing the Kings County Sheriff’s Department a lot of money.
He wasn’t even the reason the cops went to the house where he was sleeping on the night of Feb. 11, 2012 to make an arrest. He didn’t own the house; in fact, he was only renting out a bedroom. Before police showed up that night, they didn’t even know Theoharris existed. They were there to pick up another man on a failure-to-appear charge — which they quickly did, without incident, before sweeping the place for contraband in the hope of adding to their suspect’s charges.
Cops would later learn that Theoharris was an alleged recreational drug user, but he sure wasn’t in the process of committing a crime when police woke him from a dead sleep by bursting through his bedroom door. Disoriented from the intrusion, Theoharris reached for a small flashlight.
One of the two officers who had burst into the room told the sheriff’s office in the immediate aftermath that, as Theoharris started to reach for the flashlight, the dazed young man announced to the cops that “he had four guns.”
That bit of verbal legerdemain represented some quick thinking on the part of the Detective Aaron Thompson because he and officer Kristopher Rongen had just drawn a lot of unwanted attention to themselves, put their careers in jeopardy and were about to have to explain to other officers in the house what they had just done — and why.
Because as Theoharris reached for his flashlight, Thompson and Rongen emptied 16 rounds into his body. The two cops had fired a total of 20 shots. Theoharris ended up on the floor, bleeding from wounds to his face, arms, legs and torso. His jaw and shoulder were shattered; he had also suffered organ damage and a fractured spine. But somehow, through multiple surgeries, he lived.
There weren’t “four guns” in the room; there were only two – the two the cops brought in with them. A locked gun case in a separate room contained a rifle owned by Theoharris.
Predictably, prosecutors panned the incident and sided with the cops, saying the perpetrators were justified in their use of force — all 16 bullets’ worth — against what they perceived to be a threat.
Never mind that any perception of threat was created entirely by the police themselves; that in the span of about 10 seconds, the cops had taken Theoharris from zonked-out slumber to all-out anguish; that the police didn’t enter his room with anything resembling a tactical plan; that they had no business entering his room in the first place; that their premise of searching the residence for guns — in order to slap an additional felony charge onto the man whom they’d already apprehended — at the very least required them to knock at Theoharris’ door and announce themselves.
The cops invoked their 5th Amendment powers when called by the district attorney’s office to testify about what they’d done.
Now, Theoharris is preparing a lawsuit — one that could cost Kings County many millions of dollars. And, while some may decry the waste of public funds that will attend a crippling verdict, it’s a good thing.
Because as long as law enforcement officers know that they can base their aggressive behavior on the presumption they are themselves immune from criminal law, torts are just about the only legal recourse their victims have. It’s too bad that recourse can be only a punishment, and not a deterrent.