The officer who led the pursuit, Terence Sutton, was charged last month with murder, and he and his lieutenant, Andrew Zabavsky, were both charged with conspiracy and obstruction of justice for their actions immediately after Hylton was struck by a minivan as he steered his moped from an alley onto Kennedy Street in Northwest Washington. Both have pleaded not guilty to all counts.
The suit was filed Wednesday on behalf of Hylton’s 15-month-old daughter by Amaala Jones-Bey, the girl’s mother, in federal court in the District. Three other officers who were riding in Sutton’s unmarked car as part of a crime suppression team are also named as defendants. The city is named as a defendant, for allegedly enabling the police misbehavior.
The city acted with “deliberate indifference,” Hylton family attorney David L. Shurtz wrote in the lawsuit, “to the known fact that D.C. police officers racially profile and target black motorbike/dirtbike [riders] in a manner that results in DC police officers chasing and knocking DC dirtbike and motorbike, including moped, riders off their motorbikes; and pursue at high and dangerous speeds motorbike riders like in this instance.”
The city attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. The lawyers representing Sutton and Zabavsky in the criminal case declined to comment.
Hylton’s death touched off days of angry protests around the Fourth District station and the Kennedy Street scene of the crash. The conflagrations came as protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis ignited unrest across the nation.
Shurtz said in an interview that the District has known for years of “the pattern and practice of targeting Black bikers with deadly force” because of about 200 other incidents in which riders have filed more than 300 affidavits, in lawsuits filed by Shurtz, claiming they had been aggressively chased. D.C. police policy prohibits chasing someone for a traffic violation.
Body camera videos released by D.C. police show Sutton’s car pursuing the helmetless Hylton for several blocks around the area of 7th and Kennedy streets NW, including down an alley, mostly with the car’s emergency lights flashing, though they were turned off shortly before Hylton left the alley and entered Kennedy Street. Hylton was struck by a minivan on Oct. 23, 2020, and died two days later.
Sutton’s lawyer in the criminal case, J. Michael Hannon, said in a letter to D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III that police were pursuing Hylton because officers had seen him in an altercation earlier that day, that he “returned on the moped exhibiting an angry demeanor” and “officers feared he had returned armed to exact revenge.” The officers knew Hylton had a juvenile gun conviction and that Zabavsky directed them to stop Hylton to determine whether he was armed, Hannon wrote.
“The officers would have been in dereliction of their duty,” Hannon said in the letter, “not to attempt a stop of [Hylton] to determine if he was armed.”
Prosecutors have said there was no evidence Hylton had any weapon that night.
The lawsuit states that Hylton had borrowed the moped from a friend earlier, then noticed he’d lost his keys and used the moped to retrace his steps. Before he left, the lawsuit claims, Sutton’s car pulled up and Sutton called out, “Hey Karon.” Hylton said, “What do you want?” and when the officer didn’t respond, Hylton drove off, the lawsuit states.
Hylton was apprehensive of Sutton and his colleagues because his brother had been chased five times previously by Sutton and hospitalized after another chase, the lawsuit alleges. As Hylton drove away, Sutton followed, the lawsuit claims. Zabavsky, in a marked car, also joined the pursuit, the suit claims. “We’re chasing Karon on a scooter right now,” Zabavsky said over the police radio, according to his federal indictment.
Prosecutors allege that after Hylton was struck, Zabavsky waited more than three minutes before summoning aid, did not notify crash investigators, internal affairs or any senior police officials or obtain any witness statements. The driver of the van was allowed to leave after 20 minutes. “The scene was cleaned up before [the crash investigation unit] was called to the scene,” the lawsuit alleges.
At the Fourth District station, according to the indictment, Sutton denied pursuing Hylton and Zabavsky withheld information about the seriousness of Hylton’s injuries, leading to the conspiracy and obstruction charges. The lawsuit alleges that Hylton was placed in the ambulance, and hospital, as an unidentified “John Doe” to keep Hylton’s “name as low profile as possible.”