Woodbury County jailers cleared of excessive force

2013-12-19T21:30:00Z 2014-10-15T15:42:04Z Woodbury County jailers cleared of excessive forceNICK HYTREK nhytrek@siouxcityjournal.com Sioux City Journal
December 19, 2013 9:30 pm  • 

SIOUX CITY | Jonathon Hatfield's smile spread wider and wider as the jury stood and exited the courtroom.

"Thank you," he mouthed silently in their direction.

Minutes before, he had listened to U.S. District Judge Mark W. Bennett read the verdict in which the jury found that Hatfield and fellow Woodbury County jailers Michelle Risdal, Lee Blanchard and Carlos Lucero did not use excessive force in retaliation for Shannon Peters' refusal to change into jail-issued clothing after being booked into the Woobury County Jail.

The verdict came after about three hours of deliberations, a surprising outcome considering that shortly after it began deliberating, the jury sent Bennett a question asking what was the upper limit of monetary judgments.

"Wow, what a surprise. A pretty interesting verdict after that first note," Bennett said in court after releasing the jury.

Although the incident in question happened before he was elected, Woodbury County Sheriff Dave Drew said the verdict vindicated his employees and the jail's policies.

"I'm glad that it came out in court how it was handled," Drew said. "It shows we have a tough job, a very difficult job, and sometimes force is needed."

John Gray, who represented the jailers, said they did not wish to comment.

The verdict sent the wrong message about practices inside the jail, said Peters' attorney, David O'Brien, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

"The worst thing about this is, it tells Woodbury County jailers they can continue abusing young women," O'Brien said.

He was driving back to Cedar Rapids when the verdict was read and listened in by telephone. Peters was not in the courtroom. O'Brien said they were optimistic for a verdict in her favor after the jury's question about damages.

"She's disappointed. I had warned her all along these are hard cases to win," O'Brien said.

Peters, of Sioux City, sued the jailers, Woodbury County and former Sheriff Glenn Parrett in U.S. District Court in Sioux City a year ago. After being booked on a misdemeanor charge of violating a no-contact order on May 27, 2012, she was ordered to take her clothes off in front of a female jailer and change into a jail jumpsuit.

Peters claimed that a male jailer could see into the holding cell. She also had claimed that officers slammed her head against the concrete bunk while forcefully removing her clothes after her refusal to change.

The jailers had argued that they used proper force in response to Peters becoming disruptive after her refusal.

In an October ruling, Bennett had dismissed the county and Parrett from the lawsuit and dismissed Peters' claim that she was unlawfully strip searched.

O'Brien will be back in Sioux City in February representing Nicole Clay, who has filed a similar suit against different jailers. He said he will continue to file lawsuits against Woodbury County "as long as they keep treating people this way."

In March, the county paid a total of $385,000 to settle three separate lawsuits filed by other women who had sued over strip searches in the jail.

Drew said jailers will soon be outfitted with cameras that he hopes will help them adhere to rules and discourage lawsuits. He has also proposed adding several additional surveillance cameras inside the jail during a current remodeling project. It's uncertain whether there will be enough money to include the cameras, he said.

Copyright 2015 Sioux City Journal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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