A Wilmington Police Department canine officer whose dog bit a habitual felon who led police on a chase after fleeing a DWI checkpoint Halloween night was cleared of criminal wrongdoing Monday by a New Hanover County grand jury Monday.
New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David, who brought the case to the grand jury after an N.C. State Bureau of Investigation probe wrapped up last week, said "use of force could be called into question by reasonable people looking at it."
Monday, David's office released a new video of the incident, taken from a Brunswick County Sheriff's Office cruiser involved in the pursuit. The cruiser had been part of a multi-agency checkpoint at 15th and Market Streets.
The video shows the deputy's car ramming the left front tire area of Johnnie Lamont Williams' vehicle to bring him to a stop at Castle Hayne Road and 23rd Street following the 13-minute chase. At that point, Williams has his windows down and his hands up.
Wilmington Police Department K-9 Officer Stafford Brister can then be seen approaching Williams' driver-side door and lifting his dog into the open window. The dog can clearly be seen biting Williams.
Officers then smashed out the passenger-side window of Williams' front door, opened the door and yanked the dog and Williams out.
Williams was taken to New Hanover Regional Medical Center with wounds to his face and shoulder.
"I believe that it was a close enough legal question that the community should get to decide that the use of force was reasonable and that I would not rule it a matter of law that it was," David said.
Brister was facing a misdemeanor charge of assault inflicting serious injury because, David said, case law has established "a properly trained police dog is not a deadly weapon."
The officer has been on paid administrative leave since the incident.
Brister will remain on leave, said WPD Chief Ralph Evangelous, at least until an internal investigation is completed. Evangelous said he hopes that investigation to be finished by the end of the week or early next week.
"There's an administrative investigation going on as we speak and we'll address that issue once it is culminated and when that case is presented to me, we'll make a determination what is appropriate and not appropriate based on acceptable reasonable standards of deployment of that K-9," Evangelous said.
Kass, the dog Brister used in the incident, has been placed with another K-9 officer while Brister is on leave.
In reaching their decision, jurors watched the video, heard statements from Brister's SBI interview and reviewed WPD's K-9 policies. For charges to be brought, 12 of 15 jurors would have had to agree they were warranted.
Though grand jury deliberations are generally kept secret, information on Monday's case came out because Brister's attorney, J. Michael McGuinness, filed a motion asking to allow Brister to testify.
McGinnis argued police have a special privilege for use of force that relies on an officer's perspective and the only way to know an officer's perspective is to allow him to testify.
Visiting Judge Jack Jenkins denied that motion.
McGuinness also requested the judge prevent the release of the dash cam video to the StarNews, citing public record law that protects the release of investigation material.
The StarNews, represented in the courtroom by Katherine Parker on behalf of the N.C Press Association, has repeatedly requested the video and contends the law doesn't apply in this instance because the dash cam doesn't fall within the scope of criminal investigations. Jenkins approved Parker's motion to release the dash cam video to the media.
Copyright 2013 - Star-News, Wilmington, N.C.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service