County sued, deputy’s veracity questioned
A woman who was Tased a year ago by a Sangamon County sheriff’s deputy has sued the county in federal court.
Tamara Skube, 32, says that Deputy Travis Koester used excessive force when he twice Tased her after she questioned his right to search her purse. After Tasing Skube, Koester arrested her on suspicion of resisting arrest, but prosecutors filed no charges.
In the cold nomenclature of police-speak, Koester in his report writes that “Skube received full neuro-muscular incapacitation” from the stun gun that delivers 50,000 volts of electricity. During an interview in the presence of her lawyers, Skube called the pain “excruciating.”
“The pain was 10 times worse than childbirth,” Skube said.
Sheriff’s officials are defending Koester.
“I believe that she resisted arrest and that the use of force was justified,” said chief deputy Jack Campbell, who reviewed a videotape of Skube’s encounter with Koester on July 21, 2011. “We intend to have our day in court.”
An expert from outside Illinois who reviewed the same videotape as Campbell at the request of Illinois Times, called Koester “officious” and said that the deputy had no right to use his Taser on Skube.
“The bottom line is that no reasonable officer in the United States of America, let alone Illinois, would have conducted himself as that officer did at the scene of the Taser incident,” said Reginald Allard, a retired Connecticut Police Academy trainer who taught use of force and now serves as an expert witness in court cases. “He had the authority, and he exercised authority with arbitrary abuse. … The video speaks for itself.”
The video shows that Skube, who was a passenger in a vehicle whose driver was arrested on suspicion of DUI, protested when Koester searched her purse and stood her ground when Koester ordered her to back off. When Skube wouldn’t put her arms behind her back after the deputy told her she was under arrest, Koester twice used his Taser, once while she was on the ground.
Allard, who viewed a copy of the tape obtained by Illinois Times through a records request to the sheriff’s office, says that Skube had a right to object when Koester started searching her purse.
“She had a First Amendment right to question and challenge the officer – I feel bad for the woman who was exercising her First Amendment freedom,” Allard says. “He (Koester) just pushed this thing.”
In his written report, Koester says that Skube was coming toward him “in an aggressive manner.”
“I felt that Skube was in the process of coming to attack me,” wrote Koester, who reported that he gave Skube several chances to comply with his commands before he used his Taser.
The video shows that Skube was standing still when Koester pulled the trigger. Allard says that police should never use Tasers to get anyone to comply with commands. A Taser, Allard said, is equivalent to a baton: If an officer is not justified in striking someone with a baton, Taser use is not acceptable.
“The bottom line is, the Taser is supposed to reduce the use of deadly force,” Allard says. “In no way, shape or form was the deployment of the Taser here used to avoid deadly force. … In no way, shape or form was she representing any kind of threat to a reasonable officer that she was about to assault the officer. … Any curriculum I’ve seen in Taser training would not support that officer’s conduct.”
Campbell declined to say whether he agreed that a Taser is equivalent to a baton.
“I think that’s his (Allard’s) opinion,” Campbell said.
According to Skube’s lawsuit, Koester has used his Taser 34 times since becoming a deputy in 2005, stunning as many as nine people in a single year. Reports on Koester’s Taser use show that he has used the device at least a dozen times because someone didn’t obey commands, Skube’s lawyers say.
“It appears that this has been condoned by Sangamon County,” said Daniel Noll, Skube’s lawyer. “We believe this practice needs to cease. This officer is violating the rights of citizens of Sangamon County, not just Ms. Skube’s rights, but others.”
Campbell said he’s not worried about how many times Koester has used his Taser.
“Eight or nine (in a year) doesn’t surprise me a bit, and I’m not concerned about it,” Campbell said.
Prosecutors who declined to file charges against Skube also didn’t push a DUI case against her boyfriend, Clifton Flagg, who was driving the vehicle and ultimately pleaded guilty to reckless driving. While Koester in his report writes that Flagg was “acting violent,” the video shows that Flagg did not threaten the deputy or offer physical resistance.
While Koester in his report says that Flagg had bloodshot eyes, close-up shots on the video show no red. Skube in her lawsuit says that the deputy’s claim of bloodshot eyes is false, and Noll, who represented Flagg in the DUI case, said that he pointed out that Flagg’s eyes were clear to prosecutors who agreed to lesser charges.
Noll isn’t alone in questioning the veracity of Koester, who became the county’s designated DUI officer in May 2011. Judges at least twice in recent months have said that Koester’s evidence against defendants is flimsy or nonexistent.
During a June hearing, Sangamon County associate Judge John Madonia blasted Koester, who could not recall what he was doing when he first spotted an alleged drunk driver last spring. Koester also failed to ensure his video camera was working while the driver performed field sobriety tests. Once the camera was turned on after the arrest, the footage showed the driver’s speech was not slurred, contrary to Koester’s testimony and written report.
“This is so convolutedly crappy, for lack of a better word, and I don’t know if this is just a matter of people being on vacation, somebody being in training, but I’m going to tell you now, if we’re going to continue to have these types of hearings, I expect there to be a little better evidence than there was here today,” Madonia said during the hearing held to determine whether a license suspension should stick. “I’d have a little trouble finding anyone guilty of anything coming out of this stuff.”
During the hearing, Koester said that he first noticed the alleged drunken driver while on “routine patrol.”
“What were you doing here on patrol?” asked Madonia, who jumped in during questioning by the defense. “Were you sitting there, watching something, driving? Tell the court what was going on, please. I don’t care what happens routinely, I want to know what happens here at this time.”
“I don’t recall specifically if I was sitting or moving,” Koester answered.
Madonia also interjected when Koester testified that he didn’t check to ensure his camera was working, so there was no footage of the defendant performing field sobriety tests, although he did switch the camera on after the arrest.
“So, after some of the most important parts of the stop have happened, now you want to make sure everything is functioning properly and you found out it wasn’t – is that what you’re telling the court right now?” Madonia said.
Koester also testified that the defendant reeked of alcohol and marijuana, but a Leland Grove officer who spoke with the defendant and removed vehicle keys from his pocket told the court that he didn’t notice any such smells. Contrary to Koester’s report and testimony, footage of the defendant made after the arrest did not show slurred speech.
The DUI case remains pending, but Madonia canceled the license suspension, which is supposed to be automatic when drivers refuse or fail breath tests.
“I’m not sure I received one iota of credible evidence that would be used to sustain either the stop or the arrest in this case,” Madonia said.
In May, county associate judge Christopher Perrin canceled a license suspension for another driver arrested on St. Patrick’s Day. A videotape showed that the deputy did not observe the defendant for 20 minutes before giving a breath test to ensure that he didn’t belch or otherwise do anything that could affect results.
Contrary to the videotape, Koester in his report wrote that he observed the defendant for 21 minutes before giving a breath test.
“At some point in time, there’s got to be some semblance of honesty in these cases,” Jay Elmore, the defendant’s lawyer, told the judge.
Perrin ruled that the breath test wasn’t properly administered and should not have been given because the defendant hadn’t exhibited signs of intoxication. Koester testified that the defendant had slurred speech and had failed sobriety tests that included standing on one leg and walking in a line heel-to-toe fashion, but after viewing the videotape, the judge disagreed.
“I’ve seen those tests on tape hundreds of times,” Perrin said. “Moreover, what he’s testifying to and what he’s writing in his report are two different things and it leads me to believe that the guy is making it up as he goes along.”
Campbell said that the sheriff’s office knows about concerns regarding Koester’s performance in court.
“I’m aware there’s been some issues in some of his court cases,” Campbell said. “We are looking at each one of them individually.”
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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