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Federal Way agrees to pay $130,000 to man claiming police used excessive force

City of Federal Way Police Department - Contributed
City of Federal Way Police Department
— image credit: Contributed

The city of Federal Way has settled a civil rights lawsuit filed by a man who claimed police stomped on his back and chained him to a bench for hours after detectives arrested him as a person of interest in a 2008 murder.

The city will pay $130,000 in return for settling Randall Fontana’s lawsuit against the city, the Federal Way Police Department (FWPD) and five police officers.

“The Federal Way Police Department vigorously denies any wrongdoing by its officers when Mr. Fontana was taken custody as part of a murder investigation,” said Andy Hwang, interim Police Chief, in an email. “I fully support the actions of the officers involved - the decisions by the officers were reasonable and lawful given the circumstances. The decision to settle the matter was strictly a business decision by the city’s insurance carrier.”

The case stems from the 2008 murder of 75-year-old Jane Britt, who was found dead in the trunk of her Mercedes-Benz at the Garden Terrace nursing home where her husband lived. Joseph Njonge, a nursing home employee, was later arrested and convicted of the murder.

However, Federal Way detectives first focused on Fontana, whose father also stayed at the nursing home. Two years prior to the murder, Fontana approached Britt and attempted to get her to join with him in his complaints against the facility, however she became upset and told him to leave her alone, according to court documents.

Detectives executed a search warrant on March 25, 2008, when Fontana walked out his front door to go to work. Officers arrested him at gunpoint, instructing him to get on the ground, according to court documents. Fontana said he informed the officers he needed some time because he had a bad shoulder and back.

However, as he attempted to get on the ground, a detective shoved his foot into Fontana’s back and twisted his arms, while another detective used an arm-bar technique to take him down, the documents continue.

Fontana said he suffered injuries as a result.

He also claimed he was chained and shackled in a holding cell for several hours when police took him to the FWPD to obtain DNA samples. While at a temporary detention area, “an officer grabbed Mr. Fontana’s testicles and squeezed them, causing him injury,” the documents continue.

A week later, detectives matched Njonge’s DNA to the DNA found under Britt’s fingernails and arrested him for the homicide.

After Fontana filed the lawsuit in 2011, U.S. District Court Judge Richard A. Jones later found that Fontana made a “substantial showing” that a question of fact exists to whether detectives deliberately or recklessly made false statements to obtain the search warrant.

In addition, Jones concluded on Sept. 25, 2013 that a reasonable jury could find that ordering Fontana to the ground at gunpoint, handcuffing him and shackling him to a bench for approximately four hours was “an objectively unreasonable manner of executing the search warrant for his fingerprints and DNA.”

“Based on the facts presented by the plaintiff, a reasonable officer would have known that handcuffing Mr. Fontana, transporting him to the station, shackling him to a bench, and keeping him there for approximately four hours in executing a search warrant for his fingerprints and DNA that should have taken less than 10 minutes was unlawful,” Jones said.

He also noted a reasonable jury could find that the amount of force used against Fontana during his arrest was constitutionally excessive under these circumstances.

The judge also 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.

“At the end of the day, it took a lot of courage for Mr. Fontana to stand up against Federal Way and this demonstrated the importance of respecting constitutional boundaries,” Dan Fiorito III, Fontana’s attorney, told the Mirror. “There are limits to police power, and Mr. Fontana is a cautionary tale of what happens when that power is abused.”

Fiorito added that the settlement “doesn’t make what happened to him go away, but it demonstrates that there was wrongdoing on the part of Federal Way. We just hope this draws light on a negative situation and what happened to Mr. Fontana doesn’t happen to anyone else in Federal Way.”

However, the city’s attorney Ann Trivett said in an email the city “disputes Mr. Fontana’s version of events, strenuously denies any liability and stands by the lawfulness of its officers’ actions. Its officers lawfully took Mr. Fontana into custody, consistent with a signed search warrant, to collect his DNA and exonerate him as a possible suspect in an investigation into a violent and random homicide.”

She said the insurer’s decision to settle took into account both the cost of taking the case through a lengthy federal trial, and the risk of paying attorney’s fees.

 

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