Phenix City PD excessive force case settled for $225K, second case filed against officer, police chief, and city

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PHENIX CITY, Ala. (WRBL) – The City of Phenix City has settled a lawsuit brought by a local man who claims police used excessive force and wrongfully detained him for driving under the influence, attempting to elude police, and criminal mischief in March 2018.

City Council approved a $225,000 settlement with plaintiff Michael Elias Ruda during a Nov. 3 Council Session. Four of the council members voted to approve the settlement, while District 2’s Vicky Carter Johnson abstained.

Under the terms of the settlement, the city admits no fault or liability on behalf of the three defendants in the case, Officers Tobias Boisvert, Michael Bettencourt, and Joshua Geiger.

Documents in the filing against the city included a copy of the dashboard camera footage from Boisvert’s patrol car, a medical report from East Alabama Medical Center detailing the injuries sustained by Ruda during the apprehension, and city human resource department documents from Boisvert’s file.

Mr. Ruda’s attorneys allege the documents show that Boisvert has a history of excessive force complaints and behavioral issues stretching back to October 2017.

While Chief Ray Smith responded to News 3’s request for comment in 2019, saying that the officers’ actions detailed in Mr. Ruda’s use of force complaint were justified, he did not comment on the active civil suit.

The dashcam footage, response by police, and dismissal of plaintiff’s criminal charges

**Note, the video below contains graphic content**

From WRBL’s previous coverage on this incident and the resulting legal case, Boisvert had pulled over Ruda in the Glory Days bar parking lot after turning on his siren while approaching two white pickup trucks on Highway 280.

The dashcam footage shows both trucks stopping at a red light before the driver of the first truck drove away onto a service rode, while Ruda pulled over, complying with Boisvert’s signal.

From there, the incident escalated.

“Before Mr. Ruda could exit his vehicle, defendant Boisvert exited his police cruiser, drew his pistol, and while threateningly pointing his pistol at Mr. Ruda, aggressively shouted at Mr. Ruda to get out of his vehicle and show his hands,” according to court documents filed by the Ruda’s attorney, G. Griffin Sikes, Jr.

As described in the same document, Boisvert, Bettencourt and Geiger “violently and repeatedly struck Mr. Ruda with their fists and knees in the head, chest, back, abdomen, arms and legs; and assaulted him with a Taser several times” as well as kneeled on his back and pressed on his chest, leading to additional injuries.

Responding to the complaint, all three defendants denied that Mr. Ruda was assaulted during what they called a lawful arrest. The defendants’ filing in response to Mr. Ruda’s claims does admit that Mr. Ruda’s resistance, described as “unlawful,” caused some injuries.

The Phenix City Police Department charged Mr. Ruda with Driving Under the Influence, Criminal Mischief, Attempt to Elude, and Resisting Arrest.

Notes from the plaintiff’s medical file, following the incident

**Note, the images and text below contain graphic content**

On June 7, 2018, a local judge dismissed all of the charges against Mr. Ruda, except for Resisting Arrest. Mr. Ruda’s injuries also led to a use of force complaint, but the officers were cleared of wrongdoing, according to Phenix City Police Chief Ray Smith.

The attorney for Mr. Ruda, as shown in court documents, argued that Mr. Ruda’s arrest and resulting injuries were unlawful because the officers had “no probable cause for an arrest.”

The police report filed by Cpl. Boisvert says that he had received a call over police radio from dispatch about a possible drunk driver near Auburn Heights Church. Boisvert said he was in the area and decided to assist other officers in locating the vehicle.

Boisvert’s report says that he “observed a white Chevrolet truck coming to a stop at the red light on Auburn Road at Hwy 80 West.” He says he saw the vehicle turn left and start to fish tail and nearly hit a vehicle in front of it.

Following this observance, Boisvert says that he tried to initiate a traffic stop near 28th Avenue, but the truck continued going towards Highway 280, before turning right and “driving recklessly” in front of his patrol car.

Soon after turning on his sirens, Boisvert says the traffic light they were stopped at turned green and the vehicle “again fled” before “abruptly” parking at the Glory Days bar.

At this point, Boisvert’s report says he pulled his service weapon and pointed it at the driver of the vehicle, Mr. Ruda. He ordered him to the ground after he exited the truck. Then, Officers Bettencourt and Geiger arrived on the scene.

The dashcam footage shows the moments following the officers’ arrival.

Mr. Ruda is left bloodied and bruised, with lacerations and a broken elbow. Police argued during the use of force complaint investigation that their actions were lawful and justified because, they said, Mr. Ruda was resisting arrest and police believed he had a weapon.

“Fearing that he was in possession of a weapon we attempted to take the offender to the ground but he began resisting immediately and kept reaching for his waist line,” Boisvert’s report reads. Boisvert’s fellow officers statements at the time back up his version of events.

Officers say Mr. Ruda continued to refuse to comply, and was then tased by Officer Bettencourt. Boisvert says Mr. Ruda got more physical at this point.

“My left knee was near the offender’s waist line and I could feel his right hand reaching near his waist, further adding to my suspicion of him being armed. I used hard palm strikes after he began clawing at my thighs and genital area,” Boisvert says in his report.

Eventually, officers are able to get Mr. Ruda to comply and begin searching his vehicle and his person while Sgt. J Weierick comes to the scene as a “response to resistance,” according to his statement in the police report.

No weapon was found.

Submitted as evidence by the plaintiff’s legal team, medical records given to the court show that he suffered multiple injuries during the arrest.

According to court documents, Ruda’s injuries included:

  • Lacerations and bruises to his face, head, chest, abdomen, back, arms, and legs
  • Fractured elbow
  • Black eye

In the report, all officers, including then-Sgt. Weierick, “believe their actions were justified.”

A documented history of behavioral issues and use of force

Court documents show that Mr. Ruda’s attorneys claimed inconsistencies between the dashcam footage of the event and the details found in the report by the officers listed as defendants, specifically Boisvert.

The Phenix City Police Department turned over records during civil litigation detailing a history of Boisvert’s disciplinary problems.

According to court records and documents created by PCPD on Nov. 28, 2018:

“Cpl. Bosivert has shown a pattern of wanton and willful neglect in the performance of assigned duties. He failed to complete required reports, filed a report that did not match his body camera video, and carelessly left his duty weapon unsecured.”

Chief Ray Smith described Boisvert’s actions as reaching “termination level.” Despite this, Boisvert’s employment with the department continued.

Boisvert was suspended for 48 hours “In lieu of termination” and referred for medical evaluation by the city’s medical and psychological physicians.

Boisvert’s disciplinary record also shows that since a counseling session with superiors on Aug. 2, 2018, “Additional issues have been ongoing since this counseling.”

Boisvert was given a written warning.

In an Aug. 30, 2018 report, Chief Smith reported the following to Wallace Hunter, the City Manager:

On August 30, 2018, Corporal Tobias Boisvert was recommended to be cited for a Group III line 1 offense of wanton or willful neglect in the performance of assigned duties. This violation was a result of Corporal Boisvert failing to file required reports and a narrative that was inconsistent with body camera footage of the call. The recommended discipline for this offense is discharge. I am requesting that the corrective action be modified for this group III offense from the recommended discipline of discharge to a 48 hour suspension without pay and have him undergo a medical evaluation by the city medical psychological doctors in lieu of termination. this is due to information obtained during the investigation of these neglect of duty issues revealing a possible medical and/or mental condition affecting Corporal Boisvert’s fitness for duty. This modification is in accordance with Merit System Rules and Regulations 14.04.

August 30, 2018 letter to Wallace Hunter from Chief of Police Ray Smith

Reports made by Sgt. Weierick to Capt. Whitten, and another report by Capt. Whitten to Asst. Chief Green and Chief Smith detail multiple instances from July to August of 2018 where Boisvert’s mental stability and inability to complete tasks required for duty are questioned.

In December 2018, Chief Smith, Capt. George Staudinger, Lt. Mike Campbell and Stephanie Chastain met with Boisvert and issued a written warning for violating “several departmental SOPs.”

Boisvert’s history of recorded behavioral issues date as far back as Oct. 19, 2017 when the Corporal was reported as being rude to citizens or others during performance of duties after multiple incidents at the Armour Road Urgent Care Clinic.

Staff at the clinic reported multiple visits where Boisvert was “arrogant and disrespectful” to the point that a verbal warning was issued by police department staff and corrective actions were taken.

Boisvert’s disciplinary record and reporting standards included three reported instances of “falsification of police reports,” according to court records.

In testimony delivered by now-Lt. Weierick, court records show that he affirmed “Boisvert knowingly falsified a police report.” In his testimony, Weierick affirmed to the court that Boisvert’s report was “a direct contradiction” of the events depicted on video.

Testimony given by Lt. Weierick affirms that Boisvert “consciously wrote a false report.”

Boisvert’s behavior was addressed three times on record.

Mr. Ruda’s attorney said that this pattern of behavior, falsifying reports and contradicting video footage of the events, is what the plaintiff “maintains occurred” in this case, as well as the other reported incidents.

Boisvert’s “arrogant and disrespectful” behavior was not just aimed at city residents, but also his fellow officers. Chief Smith’s report says that “others in the department have a difficult time working with Boisvert.”

The result of the case’s years-long process in Alabama’s court system approached a trial phase. The plaintiff and defendants filed for motions of summary judgment, where a judge decides the facts of the case before a trial by jury.

Requests for interview were made to Phenix City’s City Attorney’s Office as well as to the plaintiff’s representation, G. Griffin Sikes, Jr. Statements were not received from either party.

The Council’s Decision

A partial motion for summary judgment was approved, with some of the claims by the plaintiff being dismissed, and others remaining.

The court ruled on the claims:

After careful consideration, the court finds that genuine disputes of material fact preclude the entry of summary judgment for either side on the § 1983 Fourth Amendment claims for unlawful arrest and excessive force against Officer Boisvert and on the § 1983 Fourth Amendment claims against Officers Bettencourt and Geiger for excessive force. The court further finds that Officers Bettencourt and Geiger are entitled to qualified immunity on the § 1983 Fourth Amendment unlawful arrest claim and that all Defendants are entitled to State-agent immunity on the state law claims.

Ruling by U.S. District Judge W. Keith Watkins on Motion for Summary Judgment, filed Oct. 13, 2020

The City Council in Phenix City made a settlement offer to Ruda and his attorney. This stopped a trial scheduled for Oct. 20.

The notice was filed on Oct. 19, with both parties required to file a joint stipulation of dismissal by Nov. 9. The case was dismissed with prejudice, meaning it cannot be brought back to court again, with the ending decision now final.

An offer was made to settle the case with Ruda for $225,000, which he accepted through his attorney. The settlement passed by a vote of 4-0, with District 2’s Vicky Carter Johnson abstaining.

Attorney Jim McKoon, one of the lawyers who defended the officers in court, addressed the council about the reasoning for the settlement.

“This was a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, it was a lawsuit about excessive force involved in the arrest of Mr. Ruda, that was a case that in the environment we’re in now, we felt like it would be best if we settled,” said McKoon to the City Council. “…we felt like our officers were in the right, but a judge sort of disagreed with us on some of the motions we filed, so we felt it was in our best interests to settle the case and recommend this amount.”

City officials responded and expressed support for the actions taken by the city’s police officers who were defendants in the case.

“We had no police officers found in fault, didn’t do anything wrong,” said Councilor Steve Bailey, District 1. “We just felt like this didn’t need to get before a jury, with today’s environment because you don’t have any idea how people are going to accept something…we endorse them, we embrace them, and we realize how hard they work.”

McKoon responded to News 3’s request for comment on the city reaching a settlement with Mr. Ruda and spoke on some of the factors that play into deciding to settle or go to trial, focusing on cases involving police and use of force.

“Everything you do when you’re preparing a case for trial, you’re looking at all of the circumstances, you’re looking at what actually happened, you’re looking at the perception that people may have one way or the other about police officers, about force, you’re looking what they may think about somebody driving drunk and on drugs. You look at a lot of things,” McKoon said.

Pending litigation against Boisvert, Chief Ray Smith, and Phenix City

On Oct. 19, 2019, an additional case was filed naming Cpl. Boisvert as a defendant. For the case of Odom v. Boisvert et al, the defendants named include “Tobias Boisvert, Ray Smith, and the City of Phenix City.”

Court filings on the ongoing process for the case show that at this time, the case is expected to have jury selection in December 2021.

McKoon says that Chan Gamble from the law firm McKoon and Gamble will be representing the defendants in this case. He would not comment on the case as it is in the process of litigation.

As of February 2020, court records show Boisvert was no longer employed with the Phenix City Police Department.

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