The ACLU of Arkansas filed suit in federal court today on behalf of a mother and son from Dover who say they were brutalized by police officers while out walking their dog in Sept. 2011. Read the allegations in the lawsuit here. A federal lawsuit had previously been filed in the case just before the one-year anniversary of the incident. Today's filing amended the complaint to include the son, who has since turned 18. Read more about the case on the jump...
On Sept. 13, 2011, Eva and Matthew Robinson were out walking the family schnauzer on the sidewalk in front of their home when a Dover Deputy Marshall (the equivalent of an officer in the town's small police department) drove by. According to the suit, Matthew Robinson — then 17 — waved at the officer, Steven Payton. Payton then proceeded to pull over his patrol car, turn on his blue lights, get out and "shouted questions at him about drugs." Payton would later testify that he thought Matthew's waving at him was suspicious.
After putting Eva and Mathew in his patrol car, Payton called for backup, and was soon joined by Sgt. Kristopher Stevens of the Pope County Sheriff's Department and Cpl. Stewart Condley of the Arkansas State Police. After backup arrived, the lawsuit says, Matthew was ordered out of the car, but his size-16 feet became entangled under the front seat. When he reached toward Sgt. Kristopher Stevens for help extricating himself from the car, Stevens tased him. Eva, thinking the taser was a gun and her son was about to be shot, threw herself over her son, and was tased as well. After that, the lawsuit says, Matthew was "thrown to the ground, beaten, choked and hit in the groin," and Eva was slammed repeatedly against the trunklid of the car while handcuffed. Matthew was tased at least 5 more times during the incident, though Pat James, the attorney for the Robinsons, noted that when they tried to get the records from the internal data recorders built into the taser used that night, they were told by the police that those records had been lost. The lawsuit says that Eva Robinson was so terrified and afraid for their lives while she and her son were being beaten that she urinated on herself.
Eva Robinson was later charged with criminal mischief, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct, all misdemeanors, with the criminal mischief charge being levied, ACLU-Arkansas executive director Rita Sklar said, because the antenna of the patrol car was broken as Eva Robinson's body was being repeatedly slammed into it. No evidence of criminal activity was ever found on Matthew or Eva Robinson, though officers allegedly tried to claim that the end of an air hose found in Matthew's pocket, part of the equipment from family's nearby auto shop, was a "pipe."
Later, according to the Robinsons' attorneys, officials offered to drop all charges in the case if the family would agree to a six-month gag order to prevent them from talking about the case, and a "civil release" barring them from filing suit against the officers and departments involved. The Robinsons refused, and Eva Robinson was tried and convicted on the three charges against her by a judge after a bench trial in the local district court. When the case was appealed to circuit court and tried before a jury, however, she was found not guilty on all charges. Matthew Robinson, attorneys said, was charged in juvenile court on charges of resisting arrest, and was eventually adjudicated on a charge of "refusal to submit."
The lawsuit names Deputy Marshall Steven Payton, Sgt. Kristopher Stevens and ASP Cpl. Stewart Condley, along with the Chief Marshal of Dover, the Sheriff of Pope County, the city of Dover, the City of Dover Marshal's Office, Pope County, and the Pope County Sheriff's Department. The suit seeks unspecified damages.
ACLU-Arkansas executive director Rita Sklar said that the case was chosen by ACLU-Arkansas because it was particularly egregious. When the Robinsons tried to complain to the departments involved, she said they weren't able to get any kind of help. She said the case highlights the need for independent oversight of police departments. "Sometimes we forget that police officers are ordinary people," Sklar said, reading from a prepared statement. "For their courage they deserve our respect. But we have to remember that as human beings they make mistakes. They are not infallible, and they should be accountable to us, the people who have hired them to do the job."
"If it could happen to the Robinsons," Sklar said, "it could happen to anyone."