Trial begins in rights case against Merced police

vpatton@mercedsunstar.comJuly 15, 2013 

Merced Tasing

Gregory Williams, seen here in 2009, claimed the city and Officer John Pinnegar violated his constitutional rights when the 14-year police veteran used a Taser on him after responding to a domestic violence call on Sept. 11, 2009.

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— Attorneys presented opening statements Tuesday in the civil lawsuit brought by a legless man who claims Merced police violated his rights when they used a Taser on him during a September 2009 incident.

Gregory Williams, a 44-year-old double amputee who uses a wheelchair, says officer John Pinnegar used a Taser on him without provocation. Police went to his 2355 K St. apartment to investigate a domestic violence complaint made by his wife, Demetrice Phifer.

The plaintiff, who is seeking unspecified damages, also maintains he was humiliated after officers left him on the ground outside his apartment, handcuffed with his hands behind his back and his pants down.

The city of Merced and Pinnegar are named as defendants in the lawsuit being heard in federal court in Fresno.

Adante Pointer, Williams' attorney, began his opening statement by giving jurors his client's version of events. The afternoon of Sept. 11, 2009, Pinnegar arrived at Williams' apartment to investigate the domestic violence complaint.

Phifer said Williams had punched her three times in the stomach — a claim Williams denied. However, Phifer was taken into custody by Pinnegar because she had an outstanding misdemeanor arrest warrant on suspicion of domestic violence.

Pinnegar told Williams he wasn't going to be arrested, saying he didn't see any wounds to Phifer. During the conversation with officers, Williams was seated in his wheelchair, holding his 2-year-old daughter on his lap.

A worker with the Department of Child Protective Services then arrived at the scene and began asking Williams questions.

At that point, according to Pointer, Williams exercised his constitutional right not to answer any additional questions. "That was the tipping point," Pointer told jurors. "It was at that point in time the tone changed."

Williams, who was outside, began to back up into his apartment. Pinnegar then grabbed Williams' 2-year-old child from his lap. "Once that took place, the incident spiraled out of control," Pointer said.

Pinnegar and another officer grabbed Williams' arms. Fearing he was going to fall from his wheelchair, Williams grabbed onto it. Pinnegar, according to Pointer, then used his Taser to shock Williams, who cried out in "agony and pain."

Pointer said his client was handcuffed by the officers and left on the ground. He said his client's pants had fallen down during the incident.

The attorney said his client spent the next six days in the Merced County Jail. Williams, according to Pointer, is also saddled with medical bills from a shoulder injury he suffered during the incident, in addition to emotional distress.

Dale Allen Jr., the attorney representing the city of Merced and Pinnegar, acknowledged that the officer initially wasn't going to arrest Williams and was going "to give him a break."

Regardless, Allen said, the officer did have probable cause to make the arrest, particularly because Williams' wife claimed she'd been struck by her husband and had been abused a week prior.

Allen said the CPS worker responded to the scene because of concerns raised by Phifer's sister. Williams refused to cooperate with the CPS worker, Allen said. In addition, a crowd from the complex had started to gather, yelling and making threats at the officers.

Merced police Sgt. Rodney Court, who was at the scene, told Williams he was going to be arrested on suspicion of domestic violence, to which Williams responded, "For what, man?"

Court ordered Williams to put his hands behind his back, according to Allen, but he refused to comply. Police also warned Williams he'd be shocked with a Taser, if he didn't follow their orders, Allen said.

Pinnegar placed the device on Williams' left shoulder, shocking him for about five seconds. Allen said officers then were able to place cuffs on Williams, who'd let go of the wheelchair.

During the incident, Court pointed his Taser at the crowd that was gathering, ordering them to step back. While police were preoccupied with the angry crowd, Williams "slipped out" of his wheelchair and went to the ground, Allen told jurors.

Allen said the officers at the scene did not see Williams' genitals exposed during the incident. "The officers did not do anything to deliberately pull (Williams') pants down," the attorney told jurors.

He said an audio recording made by Pinnegar of the incident will back up the defense's version of events.

Allen said the use of force displayed by the officers was in compliance with their training. "This is a straightforward case because this audio lays it all out for you," he told jurors.

After attorneys gave opening statements, Williams was the first witness called to the stand Tuesday. Williams wept at certain points during his testimony, prompting Judge Michael Seng to offer him a box of tissues.

Williams said he felt as if he were being harassed when the CPS worker showed up at his home, particularly because he'd already been questioned by police. At that point, Williams said, he declined to answer any more questions.

"Were you under the impression at that point in time that you were under arrest?" Pointer asked his client.

"No," Williams replied.

Williams' testimony is expected to continue today.

City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsunstar.com.

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