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Federal lawsuit: West Valley City cops violated family's civil rights

Published August 19, 2013 10:44 am

Courts • Onetime defendant in dismissed drug case is first to sue.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A onetime defendant in a drug case tossed out amid allegations of misconduct in the West Valley City Police Department has sued the department in federal court, claiming the agency's narcotics officers violated his constitutional rights when they detained his family and searched their home without a warrant last year.

Attorneys filed the lawsuit on behalf of Dante Donell Ketchens, his girlfriend, Danielle Swasey, and Ketchens' two children on Wednesday in Salt Lake City's U.S. District Court.

Named as defendants in the lawsuit are West Valley City narcotics officers Shaun Cowley, Kevin Salmon, Sean McCarthy and John Coyle, along with now-retired Chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen.

The lawsuit is the first brought by a defendant in the more than 125 cases tossed out by state and federal prosecutors after West Valley City came under fire for alleged corruption and misconduct, including the fatal shooting of 21-year-old Danielle Willard last November.

The shooting, which the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office ruled an unjustified use of force, triggered multiple probes into the department's operations and policies. Those investigations, including one by the FBI, remain ongoing. Nine officers have been placed on administrative leave, and West Valley City's narcotics squad has been disbanded.

Willard's family filed a wrongful death lawsuit in June against the city and several officers.

On Saturday, West Valley City spokesman Aaron Crim said he was aware of Ketchens' lawsuit but that the city had not yet been served. The city doesn't comment on pending litigation, but Crim said he believed the allegations of the lawsuit did stem from a narcotics squad investigation and that it was indeed the first one to be brought by a defendant from any of the dismissed cases.

Lindsay Jarvis, the attorney who represents Cowley, said she was familiar with the allegations but couldn't comment on the lawsuit because her client had not yet been served. Cowley was one of two officers who conducted a traffic stop involving Ketchens "but had no involvement in the allegations set forth in the complaint," Jarvis said.

Messages left at the offices of attorneys representing Salmon, McCarthy and Coyle were not immediately returned Saturday.

Court papers filed in the Ketchens/Swasey lawsuit say West Valley City officers followed Ketchens to his home on Aug. 15, 2012, and then ransacked the house without a warrant looking for drugs. Ketchens and Swasey were handcuffed and held for more than eight hours, leaving Swasey unable to adequately comfort or care for her infant daughter, who needed a diaper change. Swasey was made to feed her daughter while wearing handcuffs, the court papers say.

According to the documents, officers only sought a warrant for the search after combing through the home and then forged Ketchens' signature on the papers before arresting him on a drug-possession allegation.

The lawsuit contends that while in the house officers "ate pizza and played video games while mocking Danielle Swasey and the children." The officers' actions also frightened Ketchens' young son and subjected him to "humiliation, ridicule and harassment," the lawsuit states.

"The conduct of defendants ... is outrageous and intolerable," the lawsuit states.

Court papers say Ketchens was released from jail within days of the August 2012 incident. He was arrested again on Sept. 7, 2012, while at a barbershop with his son.

Ketchens was charged with drug crimes in federal court but was released Dec. 17, 2012, after the case was dismissed.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified financial damages for pain and suffering, attorney fees and court costs. Court records show no date for any hearings have been set in the case.

jdobner@sltrib.com

Twitter: @jenniferdobner