Montgomery County sheriff, staffers cleared in excessive-force lawsuit

A federal jury found in favor of Montgomery County Sheriff Michael J. Amato and three other Sheriff’

A federal jury found in favor of Montgomery County Sheriff Michael J. Amato and three other Sheriff’s Department employees last week in a civil rights case stemming from a 2005 incident.

The jury found no cause of action in a December 2008 federal lawsuit by a woman who claimed she was roughed up by deputies who forced their way into an apartment without a warrant to arrest her daughter.

In the original suit filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York, Patricia Wallace and her daughter, Courtney Dopp, alleged false arrest, malicious prosecution and excessive use of force by Sgt. Scott Whitman and Steven Ellwood, then a deputy sheriff.

Amato and Montgomery County Undersheriff Jeffery T. Smith were also named in the suit, which accused officials of instituting municipal policies and practices that violate constitutional rights.

“We’re very pleased obviously with the jury verdict,” Smith said Wednesday. “You never want to see your department or your officers named in a lawsuit, so we’re pleased with the outcome. It just shows that our officers did the right thing and are doing the right thing following laws and procedures.”

The verdict returned last week came nearly six years after the arrest of Wallace and Dopp at a Fonda residence in December 2005. In that incident, the Sheriff’s Department had been investigating a complaint made by Dopp’s boyfriend. According to the lawsuit filed by Wallace, Whitman came to the Fonda home, demanded to speak with Dopp and entered the residence without a search warrant despite Wallace asking him to remain outside.

The lawsuit alleged that Whitman lunged at Dopp, choked her, tore her clothing, put her in a headlock and handcuffed her. It also alleges that when Ellwood arrived, he grabbed Wallace and “shoved her face-first over a deck rail” and handcuffed her.

Dopp and Wallace’s attorney, Elmer Robert Keach III, said Wednesday that although he disagrees with the jury’s verdict, he respects its decision.

“They acted in good faith and deliberated and came back with their verdict,” he said.

Defense attorney Thomas K. Murphy, of the Albany firm Murphy, Burns, Barber & Murphy, said that the original claims against the county, sheriff and undersheriff were all withdrawn after he requested a motion for summary judgment.

Just before the case reached trial Sept. 26, Murphy said the only remaining claims included one by Dopp against Whitman for excessive use of force, and one by Wallace against Whitman and Ellwood for false arrest, malicious prosecution and excessive use of force.

Murphy said that just before the trial Dopp discontinued her excessive force claim.

“The jury found that the arrest of Mrs. Wallace was supported by probable cause, and as a result her prosecution was not malicious,” he said. “It found that any force that was used was reasonable and not excessive.”

Murphy said that in the end the jury found that their actions were reasonable because the deputies were just doing their job.

“In my opinion, law enforcement officials are engaged in a very difficult occupation,” he said. “We ask them to go out and arrest people and take them into custody, and they’re making decisions in a split second sometimes and events around them are rapidly evolving. So they do the best they can.”

Smith said Wednesday that it can be frustrating when a lawsuit is filed because the person bringing the suit “makes all sorts of comments and we don’t.”

“We’re not allowed to comment on the lawsuit or open litigation,” he said. “So this is nice to have the jury decide unanimously in our favor.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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