Woman whose eye was shot out by Utah police officer loses excessive force lawsuit

A jury has rejected a claim in a lawsuit that a Morgan County sheriff’s officer used excessive force when he shot a woman in the left eye at the end of a 2012 police chase.

After deliberating for about an hour at the conclusion of a five-day trial in Farmington’s 2nd District Court, jurors returned a unanimous verdict on Oct. 27 that found Sgt. Daniel Peay did not violate the constitutional rights of Kristine Biggs Johnson.

“We are pleased with the verdict and appreciated the diligence of the jury and the court,” said attorney Julia Kyte, who with attorney Jeffrey Bramble represented Peay. “Sergeant Peay is an excellent officer and we believe the correct result was reached in this case.”

Johnson’s attorney, Robert Sykes, said Tuesday that he is considering an appeal. He said Peay’s assertion that he fired his gun because he believed a fellow officer — the sergeant’s brother, Deputy Christian Peay — was about to be run over by Johnson was a “made-up story.”

Johnson — who was a Colorado resident at the time of the shooting and now lives in California — was drunk on Nov. 24, 2012, and would not pull over when a Morgan County sheriff’s deputy tried to stop her for having a broken headlight, according to court records. She fled, setting off a 40-mile chase into Davis County and at times driving up to 90 mph on Interstate 84.

The 30-minute chase continued even after Johnson — who drove over spikes set up by officers that ripped off three tires on her pickup truck — ended on a road near South Weber. Blocked in by police vehicles, Johnson made a U-turn and struck two cruisers, according to court records.

Dashcam video shows Daniel Peay getting out of his cruiser and approaching Johnson’s truck as she tries to back out of the cluster of cars. Then, as the truck pulls forward a few yards and hits one of the cruisers, Peay fires a single shot through the pickup’s windshield.

Sykes said in court documents that the .40-caliber bullet entered Johnson’s left eye, destroying it, and exited her left upper cheek.

Kyte said Peay had three seconds to make his decision to fire and pulled the trigger because Johnson was driving toward Christian Peay and the sergeant believed his brother was in imminent danger of being run over, pinned or crushed.

Johnson’s suit, though, contends she was driving 2 to 3 mph and that Christian Peay was standing to the side of his vehicle “completely safe, and not in danger of being hit.”

In January 2013, Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings said in an assessment of the incident that Peay was not “squarely justified” in shooting Johnson but said no criminal charges would be filed against the officer because a jury would not convict him of a crime when presented with all of the evidence.

Johnson filed suit in December 2014 in U.S. District Court against Morgan County and Peay, claiming the sergeant had used excessive force and had violated her rights under both the U.S. and Utah constitutions. In August 2016, Judge Tena Campbell dismissed the suit after finding Peay’s actions to be reasonable and constitutional under the circumstances and ruling he was entitled to qualified immunity.

The parties had disagreed on how fast Johnson’s vehicle was traveling but Campell said the speed was irrelevant because the truck could have been a “deadly weapon” if it struck someone. In addition, the judge said Peay’s belief that the truck would hit his brother did not have to be correct, “it just had to be reasonable.”

Campbell’s ruling resolved the federal claims but did not decide a claim in the suit alleging a violation of the state constitution so after the dismissal, Johnson sued Peay in 2nd District Court.

The litigants were not allowed at last month’s trial to tell jurors about the federal ruling or the decison that Peay was not justified in shooting Johnson.

Johnson, now 46, was charged in 2nd District Court with third-degree felony counts of aggravated assault and failure to respond to an officer’s signal to stop, along with misdemeanor counts ranging from driving under the influence to driving on a suspended or revoked license and driving with an open alcoholic container. Her blood-alcohol level was about four times the legal limit, according to Peay’s attorneys.

Under a deal with prosecutors, Johnson pleaded guilty to the count of failure to respond to an officer’s signal and class B misdemeanor DUI, and was sentenced to three years of probation.

Peay worked at the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office until a few months ago, when he took a job as a police officer in Kanab to live closer to his wife’s family, Kyte said.