Attorney: Lawsuit against Ellis not politically driven

Published 1:00 pm Friday, October 29, 2010

The prosecuting attorney in an excessive force lawsuit against Mower County sheriff’s Sgt. Jeff Ellis said Friday morning the lawsuit is not motivated by the upcoming election.

“Absolutely none,” said Duane Kennedy, the attorney representing the plaintiff, when asked if there was a connection between the timing of the lawsuit and the election. “I didn’t know (the sheriff’s race) was pretty heated. I knew (Ellis) was running against Sheriff Amazi.”

Kennedy said he and his colleague were contacted first by Peter Vought, 47, of Owatonna, and were not able to get to the case until recently because of a heavy workload.

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Jason Hiveley, the attorney representing Ellis in the case, said his office received papers regarding the lawsuit Thursday.

“I have no idea what the motivation is,” he said. “I do have an understanding that it was sent to the media just a few days before the election.”

The Herald received a fax containing the lawsuit late Wednesday afternoon from the prosecuting attorneys.

A lawsuit filed in U. S. District Court Wednesday alleges that Ellis and his K-9 police dog, Tazer, used unnecessary and excessive force while arresting a felony suspect in July 2007.

Attorneys for Vought claim that Ellis violated Vought’s civil rights when Tazer bit Vought’s upper thigh and buttocks, causing several puncture wounds, during the arrest.

“When a person becomes a peace officer or a law enforcement officer, he takes an oath to uphold and protect the constitution,” said Kennedy. “It is our belief that Ellis violated that oath and the constitution.”

This is the second time Hiveley has been assigned to represent Ellis on behalf of Mower County. In 2007 to 2009, Hiveley represented Ellis in a similar case involving alleged excessive use of force with Ellis’ K-9, Tazer — a case in which a Minneapolis jury found him not guilty.

According to Hiveley, the plaintiff in the previous case against Ellis was represented by the same two attorneys who are now filing the lawsuit on behalf of Vought.

“They (the attorneys) attempted to bring it up during the last trial, but the judge said talking about unrelated incidences are not relevant to the case,” Hiveley said.

The lawsuit against Ellis said Vought was unarmed and lying face down on the ground when Ellis ordered Tazer to attack him. The lawsuit also said Vought was not resisting arrest nor attempting to flee from the sergeant.

The lawsuit said, “… Ellis, acting under the color of state law, violated and deprived Vought of his clearly established and well-settled rights to be free from the use of excessive and unreasonable force and unreasonable seizure.”

Vought is seeking to be awarded compensatory damages for mental anguish, pain and suffering and humiliation. According to the lawsuit, the amount of compensatory damages exceeds $75,000, excluding interest and costs.

From here, Hiveley said his law office will prepare an answer to the complaint, based on police reports and statements from other officers involved. At this point, according to Hiveley, it’s too early to say how far this case will go.

“We will, in all likelihood, seek dismissal of the case,” Hiveley said. “There’s no guarantee this case will make it to trial, but certainly, if the case is not dismissed, it’s the type of case we would take to trial to have a jury hear the case.”

Both Ellis and Sheriff Terese Amazi were directed by attorneys not to comment to the media.

Attempts were made to contact Vought for comment but he was unavailable.

Trisha Marczak contributed to this report.