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Police must pay $500,000 for Tasering Md. man in the back, wrongful arrest

August 28, 2017 at 4:50 PM

The stun of the police Taser that struck Ronnie Lyles in the back and dropped him to the ground lasted only about five seconds, but he said the repercussions of the shock and his subsequent arrest tormented him long after the law enforcement encounter.

Lyles's head hit the ground with a thud after being Tasered, leaving him in physical pain for months.

Charged with assault, failure to obey police and disorderly conduct, the professional driver had his license suspended and lost his job while fighting his prosecution.

And the prospect of spending his 40s in prison left Lyles distraught and withdrawn, an emotional transformation that broke up his engagement.

Five years after Lyles found himself writhing in a parking lot, a federal jury in Maryland ordered two Riverdale Park police officers to pay him more than $500,000 in damages. At the end of a two-day civil trial this month in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, the jury determined that police used excessive force, falsely charged Lyles and maliciously prosecuted him.

Related: [Deaths have raised questions about the risk of excessive or improper deployment of Tasers]

"It was a remarkable example of a pretty blatant violation of rights, with really no reasonable excuse whatsoever even under the officer's version of events," said Cary Hansel, the Maryland attorney who represented Lyles. The officer "admits the guy never struck him or touched him but still charged him with assaulting an officer and Tased him in the back."

In a statement, Riverdale Park Police Chief David C. Morris said the town is reviewing the court decision.

"The underlying incident in this civil lawsuit occurred more than five years ago," Morris said. "The town of Riverdale Park was then and continues to be committed to providing professional police services to our residents, businesses and visitors."

The officers who were ordered to pay damages — Job Blanco and Brian Slattery — still serve on the force, Morris said.

The attorney listed for Blanco and Slattery did not respond to requests for comment. And Blanco and Slattery did not respond to messages via social media and phone.

Lyles, a Forestville resident, was not convicted of a crime in connection with the encounter with the Riverdale Park police.

The case stems from an April 2012 traffic stop. Lyles and his fiancee had just finished dinner with friends in the District and stopped at a McDonald's to pick up food for their children before heading home.

As they left the parking lot of a nearby shopping center in their Cadillac SUV, Blanco pulled them over, Hansel said.

Lyles asked why he was being stopped, but the officer did not initially answer, court documents state. Lyles repeated the question several more times, before the officer finally replied, "No seat belt."

Lyles, whose job involved driving, was shocked.

"He always wears his seat belt because he's a freak about it and worries about it for his job," Hansel said.

Lyles told the officer that he had unbuckled his seat belt to grab his license and registration after being pulled over, according to the claim Lyles filed.

Lyles, who is black, believed that the police stopped him because of his race and then made up an explanation. Lyles became upset at the officer to the point of being rude, Hansel said.

"But we have every right as Americans to question our government, even rudely," Hansel said. "It would have been different if there had been any threat against the officer, but there was no threat and no argument that there was any threat. Here is a man pulled over for what he believes is for the color of his skin and voices his displeasure."

Lyles tried to hand over his license and registration, but Blanco would not accept it, and Blanco instead called for backup, Lyles's lawsuit stated. Several marked cruisers and police officers arrived, and police ordered Lyles out of the car.

Lyles stepped out and, as ordered, put his hands on the vehicle, according to Hansel.

"Almost immediately upon turning his back to the officers, Mr. Lyles was Tasered in the center of the back by Blanco," the lawsuit asserted. "Mr. Lyles uncontrollably fell to the ground striking his head with a thud against the parking lot surface."

Police handcuffed Lyles, took him to the hospital to have the Taser prongs removed and then charged him with second-degree assault, failure to obey and disorderly conduct.

Both sides agreed that Lyles never touched or swung at any officers, Hansel said.

In court, Blanco testified that Lyles turned around a few times after getting out of the car and then balled up his hands, according to Hansel. Blanco said he perceived that posture to be a fighting stance even though Lyles's back was to the officer, Hansel said.

Lyles contested his case at trial and a Prince George's County jury acquitted him of all counts, according to Hansel and online court records.

Although Slattery did not use the Taser on Lyles, the jury ordered him to pay damages for approving the filing of charges that resulted in the prosecution of a case.

Hansel said that Lyles has recovered physically but that he continues to face psychological issues. He and his fiancee called off their wedding, because the stress of facing 10 years in prison changed Lyles's personality.

"Just taking the officer's story for face value, it is still a gross constitutional violation," Hansel said. "Asking him to get out of the car for not wearing a seat belt just isn't done, at least not to white people."

Read more:

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Lynh Bui is a local reporter covering Prince George's County police, fire and courts. She joined The Washington Post in 2012 and has previously covered Montgomery County education.

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