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Man files $20M suit against Family Court marshals for excessive force


A former Henderson man has filed a lawsuit alleging he was the victim of excessive force in a videotaped February 2012 confrontation with Family Court marshals.

Peter Peterson, 42, who now lives in Oklahoma City, alleges in the lawsuit that marshals handcuffed him and then threw him head-first to the concrete floor of the Las Vegas courthouse. He alleges he suffered facial fractures, head contusions, spinal injuries and a lost tooth.

Marshals contended in reports of the incident that Peterson, who was to attend a juvenile court hearing, became “confrontational” and tried to “incite” bystanders after they stopped him after he passed through security screening metal detectors.

But in a 911 recording obtained by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, a witness tells operators the marshals harassed Peterson and slammed him to the ground. And a low-quality security camera video shows two marshals tossing Peterson to the courthouse floor as his wife tries to intervene.

Family Court Marshal Brent Johnson and the Clark County District Court, which oversees Family Court, are named as defendants in the suit.

Peterson seeks $20 million in compensatory and punitive damages, according to the suit filed by attorneys Andre Lagomarsino and Alex De Castroverde.

The suit, filed Monday in federal court, comes as a federal grand jury is reviewing allegations of excessive force and other misconduct by Family Court marshals.

Several excessive force incidents were reported in recent years during the tenure of Steve Rushfield, the former Family Court supervisor of the marshals. Allegations that incidents at the courthouse were covered up have also surfaced.

FBI agents recently carted boxes of files from the Regional Justice Center office of Ed May, the human resources manager for District Court. Agents are reported to have subpoenaed records from internal investigations of Family Court marshals over several years.

District Court spokeswoman Mary Ann Price could not be reached for comment on the lawsuit late Tuesday. Court officials have consistently declined to comment on the grand jury investigation, as well as the allegations of excessive force and other misconduct.

According to the lawsuit, Peterson entered Family Court, 601 N. Pecos Rd., with his wife and son at about 10:15 a.m. on Feb. 27, 2012. As he walked through the metal detectors, he complained about the security procedures and was stopped by Johnson.

The marshal told Peterson he didn’t like his attitude and would be taking him into custody for failing to provide identification.

Johnson is alleged to have handcuffed Peterson’s hands behind his back as another marshal put a stun gun to his chest.

“Scared and confused, plaintiff repeatedly asked the marshals what he had done wrong,” the lawsuit reads. “Within seconds, the defendants picked up plaintiff and threw him head-first into the ground while plaintiff was still in restraints.

“As plaintiff was on his stomach pinned to the ground, the marshals continued to sit on his back and legs for several minutes.”

Peterson was later transported to the hospital for treatment of his injuries and booked into the Clark County Detention Center on misdemeanor charges of disturbing the peace and resisting arrest, the lawsuit said. He picked up another charge while at the hospital after he threw an oxygen meter and hit a marshal in the head.

But no formal charges stemming from the Family Court confrontation were ever filed against Peterson, and the charge stemming from the hospital altercation was dropped as part of a plea deal, his lawyers said.

According to the lawsuit, there has been a long-standing policy of ignoring or minimizing cases of excessive force at the courts.

“As a result … marshals feel empowered to harm citizens, knowing that there will be no punishment after the fact,” the lawsuit said.

Earlier this year, Crystal Williams, who alleges she was choked by a Family Court marshal on May 20, 2010 while restrained in a holding cell, testified before the federal grand jury. Three marshals who have said they saw Rushfield choking Williams also testified.

Williams, 27, was at a Family Court hearing in 2010 to support a friend. After a confrontation with marshals outside the courtroom, she was strapped into a chair in the cell.

In an interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal in March, a marshal who said he witnessed the incident described Williams as combative and screaming. The marshal, who asked not to be identified, said Rushfield grabbed her by the throat with one hand, shoved her head back and said, “You’re in my house, bitch. Shut the f—up.”

Rushfield summoned all of the witnesses to the back of the courthouse to “get the story straight” in anticipation of an internal investigation, the marshal said.

Las Vegas police investigated the incident, but in early 2011 Criminal Intelligence Section detectives decided the matter was best left for administrative action by the court. Bob Bennett, the court’s security director, recommended firing the lieutenant but two years passed with no action by Steve Grierson, the District Court’s executive.

Three weeks after publication of a Review-Journal story on the incident Rushfield gave up his lieutenant’s rank, becoming a regular courtroom marshal for Family Court Judge Frank Sullivan.

Rushfield also has been accused of trying to cover up allegations that another marshal groped Monica Contreras, 28, who was in Family Court on Aug. 8, 2011, for a hearing related to her divorce.

In a courtroom incident captured on videotape, Contreras complained to Hearing Master Patricia Doninger that Marshal Ron Fox assaulted her in a witness room under the guise of searching her for drugs. Doninger appeared to ignore Contreras’ pleas, which prompted a marshal to arrest her on misdemeanor charges of providing false information to a police officer and disturbing the peace. She later pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge. The disturbing-the-peace charge was dismissed.

Earlier this year, Contreras and her lawyer, Ross Goodman, filed a federal lawsuit alleging court officials violated her civil rights.

Fox was fired after an internal investigation, and Doninger was let go last month amid publicity over the incident.

 

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