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VanGesen: Lawsuit settlement a matter of expediency

Hagadone News Network | November 26, 2023 1:00 AM

Settlement of a 2015 lawsuit alleging racial profiling was a matter of expediency and practicality, not an admission of guilt, according to a Boundary County sheriff candidate involved in the Washington state case.

The lawsuit stems from a Sept. 13, 2015, traffic stop, after Jon VanGesen pulled over Omari Taylor, 44, a Black man, for having broken a taillight on his car near Manchester, Wa. VanGesen, who worked for the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office at the time, now works for the Bonner County Sheriff’s Office and is running for Boundary County sheriff.

Taylor testified that when he passed VanGesen, who is white, he saw the deputy looking directly at him. However, VanGesen testified he couldn't identify the driver’s gender or race, but as the vehicle passed, he observed the taillight.  

Both parties agreed that the taillight was cracked, but disagreed on whether VanGesen saw the damage when Taylor’s vehicle passed him. 

Taylor filed a complaint against VanGesen on Aug. 20, 2018, where he claimed his rights under the First and 14th amendments had been violated, that he had been racially profiled, roughed up, arrested and jailed.

The First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech, religion and peaceful assembly. The 14th Amendment grants citizenship to all persons “born or naturalized in the U.S.,” including former slaves, and provides citizens with “equal protection under the law,” which includes the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizures. 

VanGensen told the Bonners Ferry Herald that when he pulled over Taylor, the man was immediately confrontational and claimed the stop was racially motivated.

VanGensen said Taylor wouldn’t get his hands out of his pockets and wouldn’t stand up straight, bending at his waist, making the deputy think he had a weapon on him. 

The Kitsap Sun, a local news outlet, released a cellphone video taken of the traffic stop. Taylor’s friend Heather Sinn filmed from her window, as the traffic stop took place on her driveway. 

In a cellphone video, Taylor can be seen outside his vehicle with his hands crossed at chest level. Because the video was shot through the window, there is no audio of the conversation between Taylor, VanGesen and other responding officers. 

Kinn later told officials that she came out of her home after hearing a male voice, but was ordered by VanGesen to go back inside. She called 911 because VanGesen’s “tone of voice” made her feel that help was needed to de-escalate the situation, court documents said. She “perceived the situation” as an “aggressive interaction” and began to film. 

In the lawsuit, Taylor said he was grabbed on the upper arm and shaken by VanGesen and shoved backward as the deputy reached for his handgun. At that time the KCSO deputies had not been equipped with body cameras, leaving Kinn’s video as the only filming of the confrontation.

After other Kitsap County deputies arrived on scene, VanGesen arrested Taylor for obstructing an officer, handcuffed him with assistance and directed that Taylor be transported to jail. 

Taylor later filed a public records request for copies of all motor vehicle equipment citations issued by Kitsap County Sheriff’s deputies from Jan. 1, 2015, to Sept. 30, 2015. Thirty-one “legibly signed” citations were produced, nine of which were for the taillight/license plate light violation Taylor received. Taylor claimed he received the only violation during daylight hours. 

Taylor testified that he obeyed the 35 mph speed limit on California Avenue and did not apply his brakes or activate his taillights while passing VanGesen. 

Taylor provided photographs of the rear of his vehicle taken by a private investigator and asserted that the photographs showed it was impossible for VanGesen to detect the taillight damage as VanGesen had described in his police report and testimony. 

“The Court agrees with Taylor that VanGesen’s line of questioning about where Taylor lived and what he was doing in the area and the reasonable inferences therefore tend to support Taylor’s conclusion that VanGesen acted with racial motivation,” U.S. District Judge Benjamin H. Settle wrote March 25, 2021, as part of Taylor’s motion for reconsideration. 

“A reasonable factfinder could find that the line of questioning about why Taylor, a Black man, was in a predominantly white area is circumstantial evidence of racial motivation,” Settle wrote. 

Previously the court had concluded that Taylor had established discriminatory effect and had shown that “similar situation individuals who were not Black were not subject to being stopped and cited during daylight hours for a broken taillight,” Settle wrote. 

In court documents, VanGesen testified one of the reasons he ordered Taylor out of the car was he did not want the man to have unmonitored access to “debris,” according to court records. Taylor had groceries in the front seat of his car. 

While Taylor said he complied with all of VanGesen’s commands, the deputy’s incident report stated that Taylor ignored commands to remove his hands from his pockets. 

The report went on to say that this repeated behavior caused VanGesen to believe that Taylor had a concealed weapon or contraband and caused him to fear that Taylor was going to assault him. 

VanGesen argued that even if a jury could find he violated Taylor’s constitutional rights, he was entitled to qualified immunity on all Taylor’s claims. Qualified Immunity is protection from civil damages for government officials performing discretionary functions, so long as they don't violate “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” 

Kitsap County settled the lawsuit for $200,000.

Taylor, told the Kitsap Sun, that a resolution of the U.S. District Court lawsuit he filed in August 2018 is an admission that Jon VanGesen violated his constitutional rights, something Taylor said was more important to him than the money.

“It’s not like I invited this at all,” Taylor said, adding that he was disappointed the case did not go to trial. “It’s not the taillight he was looking at. It was me he was looking at.”

Kitsap County prosecutors, who represented VanGesen, said the settlement wasn’t connected to wrongdoings, but a “practical financial decision to avoid the risks of going to trial,” the Kitsap Sun reported. 

“My actions Sept. 13, 2015, were lawful, justified, and within Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office policy. I appreciate Kitsap County’s vigorous defense of these false allegations. My hope was the facts would be presented to a jury at trial. However, it became clear in preparing the case, finding an impartial jury, not influenced by recent cases of racial injustice and strong biases towards law enforcement, would be difficult. I respect and understand Kitsap County’s decision to resolve the case prior to trial,” VanGesen said. 

VanGesen said that the height of the lawsuit was during the Black Lives Matter protests in the Seattle area and western Washington. He said the Kitsap prosecutor opted to settle the lawsuit, believing a current anti-cop sentiment would make it impossible to get an unbiased jury in Tacoma. 

In the settlement agreement, Kitsap County officials agreed “to the entry of this agreed final judgment for the constitutional violations alleged.” 

However, Ione George, chief of staff for the prosecutor’s office, said county officials do not see that as an admission that VanGesen violated Taylor’s rights, as claimed in the lawsuit.

“The county stands behind (then) Sgt. VanGesen’s actions on the date of this incident and are thankful for his service to the community,” George wrote in an email to the Kitsap Sun. “It is an unfortunate reality of our time that lawsuits such as this are now an everyday risk of the job.”

In 2015, VanGesen was assigned to work in the KCSO of Professional Standards — which investigates employee misconduct. He was then promoted to lieutenant, working first as a patrol supervisor then detectives supervisor before advancing to acting chief of detectives for a brief period. 

In December 2020, VanGesen retired from the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office after 29 years of service.

VanGesen was then hired as a patrol deputy at the Bonner County Sheriff’s Office. He was then promoted to detective and currently serves as Lieutenant of Professional Standards, where he oversees the operations of 911, support services, drivers licensing, civil services, internal affairs and their respective budgets.