By Sean O'Sullivan, The News Journal
Two Seaford police officers pulled over a Dagsboro man on the night of his 43rd birthday, fired a stun gun into his ribs and roughly handcuffed him, mistakenly believing he was someone else, according to a federal lawsuit complaining about the 2011 incident.
After the man protested that he had done nothing wrong, officers were heard laughing on a surveillance video after one suggested placing drugs in the man's car, according to the lawsuit filed by Reginald G. Johnson. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Wilmington last week against the city and two officers, alleges excessive force and malicious prosecution, among other charges.
Johnson's interaction with the police that September 2011 night was captured on the squad car video.
"It's clear from the police videos filed with the complaint what happened to Mr. Johnson on his 43rd birthday," said Stephen P. Norman, Johnson's lawyer. He declined further comment because of the pending litigation.
On the video, which is included as an attachment to the lawsuit, officers are seen and heard approaching Johnson's car, greeting him with a "How are you doing?" That was quickly followed by an order to Johnson to step out of his vehicle.
When Johnson hesitates and asks why he was pulled over, one officer opens the car door. The officer then warns, "I'll tase you," and seconds later shoots Johnson with the stun gun.
The electrical shock causes Johnson to drop to the ground, according to the suit and verified on the video.
In between screams, Johnson can be heard saying, "I've done nothing man! What did I do? Lord have mercy, what have I done? I haven't done anything!"
City Manager Dolores J. Slatcher said Monday that she had not received a copy of the lawsuit and therefore could not comment.
In addition to the city of Seaford, Cpl. Marc D. Russell and an "Officer Mills" are named defendants in the lawsuit. No other identifying information for Mills is included in the lawsuit.
According to court papers, Johnson was driving on Sept. 18, 2011, when he was pulled over by Russell and Mills eastbound on Norman Eskridge Highway, west of U.S. 13. Mills had his gun drawn as he approached the passenger side window of Johnson's car and Russell approached on the opposite side to order Johnson to exit, the lawsuit states.
"As can be seen on the video, a total of 14 seconds elapsed from the time defendants first requested that plaintiff exit the vehicle and the time plaintiff was shot with defendant Russell's Taser," wrote Norman in the court filing.
Officers then got on top of Johnson's back and handcuffed him as Johnson continued asking what he had done wrong. According to the suit, the officers responded that they would "fill him in later" on what he had done.
On the video an officer tells Johnson, "If you had gotten out, we'd have been able to explain everything and clear it up the easy way. But you wanted to make things difficult."
While Johnson clearly identified himself on the video, the officers do not appear to believe him and asked him repeatedly if he was sure of his name. "Who do you think I am?" answers Johnson, telling the officers to look at his license and registration.
According to the police report, officers were searching for an unnamed man in that area and a tracking device appeared to indicate the cellphone of the man they were searching for was in Johnson's car. The report, written by Russell, does not state if the cellphone was recovered during the arrest.
Russell wrote: "I became more concerned for my safety" when Johnson did not immediately exit his vehicle. Johnson had still not exited his vehicle after he was warned about the stun gun, Russell noted in his report.
"I then deployed my Taser, striking [defendant] in his jacket and right ribcage area," Russell reported.
While Johnson was being held, officers searched his car and an officer, identified as Cpl. Aaron Mitchell, could be heard on the video saying, "Somebody drop the dope in here." That was followed by laughter in an apparent reference to planting drugs in the car, according to the suit.
Johnson was later charged with resisting arrest and disorderly conduct, according to court papers.
All charges were later dropped by prosecutors in March 2012, "without any concession by plaintiff," according to the lawsuit.
Johnson suffered serious injuries to his nose, face, wrist and back, according to court papers and an internal investigation by Seaford concluded that Russell "acted with unnecessary force" and Mitchell "engaged in unbecoming conduct" for his comment about planting drugs.
Slatcher said she was unaware of any investigation by the city that concluded a Seaford police officer acted improperly. "I'll have to look into that," she said.