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Lawsuit accuses Federal Way police of excessive force, falsifying evidence in 2008 murder case
A civil rights lawsuit accuses Federal Way police detectives of excessive force, unlawful arrest and manufacturing evidence against a man who was detained as a person of interest in a 2008 murder.
The case stems from the 2008 murder of 75-year-old Jane Britt, who was found dead in the trunk of her car at the Garden Terrace nursing home where her husband stayed. Nursing home employee Joseph Njonge was later arrested and convicted of the murder.
However, Federal Way detectives first focused on Randall Fontana, whose father also stayed at the nursing home.
According to court documents, detectives obtained a search warrant for Fontana's car, home, and seizure of DNA and fingerprints.
On March 25, 2008, detectives executed the search warrant when Fontana walked out his front door. According to documents, a detective pointed a gun at Fontana and instructed him to get on the ground. As Fontana attempted to do so, the detective shoved his foot into Fontana's back while another detective used an "arm bar" technique to take him down.
Fontana was transported to a temporary detention area where he was chained to a bench.
Fontana was detained for four hours. According to documents, just before Fontana's release, an unidentified officer searched Fontana and yanked on his genitals, "causing him considerable pain."
About a week later, detectives matched Njonge's DNA to the DNA found under Britt's fingernails, and arrested Njonge for the homicide.
Fontana filed the lawsuit in 2011, and the city eventually filed a motion to dismiss the case. Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Richard A. Jones refused to dismiss the lawsuit. The case will go to trial on March 3.
The judge found that Fontana "has made a 'substantial showing' that a question of fact exists with respect to whether detectives deliberately or recklessly made false statements" to obtain the search warrant.
One example refers to a detective's statement that Fontana had previously assaulted his brother with a two-by-four, despite no evidence presented to back up that statement, according to documents. Another example is an alleged conversation between Fontana and Britt that was cited in the warrant, but not proven through evidence by detectives.
"The court notes that Mr. Fontana has presented evidence that challenges the statement in the affidavit that Ms. Britt 'became upset' with him," according to documents.
The judge dismissed several claims in the lawsuit, including a claim that Federal Way failed to train its officers in serving search warrants, as well as a claim that police denied Fontana medical treatment.
The lawsuit alleges that Federal Way detectives lacked probable cause and violated Fontana's Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. According to court documents, detectives presented no evidence of conducting a background check on Fontana before drafting their search warrant.
Detective Thaddeus Hodge testified that the process for collecting DNA and fingerprint evidence would take 10 minutes. According to court documents, the detectives have not presented evidence to explain why Fontana was detained at the station for four hours.
"The jury will get to hear how the police in Federal Way conduct their business," said Dan Fiorito III, who is Fontana's attorney. "It's a very unfortunate situation when there is an abuse of power of any sort. … We feel that Federal Way was out of line in this instance."
The court documents note that a number of facts are in dispute, and that facts are summarized and addressed "in the light most favorable" to Fontana, who is the plaintiff.
Joseph Njonge, the man convicted of murdering 75-year-old Jane Carol Britt in 2008, had that decision overturned in 2011.
The Washington State Court of Appeals found that Njonge had his right to a public trial violated when the court arranged seating for all potential 65 jurors during jury selection.
King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg vowed to appeal the case to the State Supreme Court, which was set to hear arguments this month, according to the Seattle Times.