This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
The Morgan County officer who shot a woman in the face during a 2012 police chase was justified in his use of force, a U.S. District judge ruled Monday.
Morgan County sheriff's Sgt. Daniel Peay was granted qualified immunity in the shooting, according to a decision by Judge Tena Campbell, and his actions were found to be reasonable and constitutional under the circumstances.
The woman Peay shot, Kristine Biggs Johnson, filed the lawsuit against Peay and Morgan County in 2014 after Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings found the shooting unjustified but did not file charges against the sergeant. At the time, Rawlings said "a unanimous jury would not convict Sergeant Peay of a crime when presented with all of the evidence."
Peay fired a single shot at Johnson on Nov. 24, 2012; the bullet hit and blinded the California woman in the left eye. Police initially attempted to pull over Johnson, who was purportedly drunk, for driving without headlights at night. She failed to respond and led officers on a 30-minute chase in Davis County, at times driving up to 90 miles per hour on Interstate 84.
About 20 minutes into the 40-minute chase, according to court documents, officers set up spikes on the road, which ripped off three of Johnson's tires. She continued to drive, though, stopping briefly near 700 East and Cottonwood Drive, where Peay and other officers attempted to block her truck with their cars. Peay and other responders got out of their vehicles and ordered Johnson to stop.
She rammed Peay's car with enough force that it "jerked as it was hit," court documents state. She then backed up, revved her engine and drove toward the car of Peay's brother, a Morgan County deputy, hitting it with "an even stronger force." As she struck that car, Peay fired the shot, court documents state, fearing that his brother was in immediate danger of being pinned between the two vehicles.
Johnson says Peay acted with "unnecessary and excessive" force and no one was in danger. Robert Sykes, Johnson's attorney, said his client was driving slowly when she struck the cars and that she did not pose an immediate threat. Peay's use of force, he said, was "unjustified" because Johnson "wasn't going to hit anyone" Peay's brother had stepped out of the way.
"We're disappointed in the outcome [of the case]," Sykes said, later adding that Peay "tried to kill her for going 2 miles an hour."
The parties disagree on the speed at which Johnson's vehicle was traveling, but the court noted that the exact speed is irrelevant because the woman's pickup truck could have been a "deadly weapon" if it struck someone. Additionally, the judge ruled, Peay's belief that the truck would hit his brother did not have to be correct: "It just had to be reasonable."
Sykes, though, said Peay had seven to 10 seconds to see that his brother was not in line with the car before shooting Johnson, noting that a "reasonable officer" would not have fired without first assessing the situation. Johnson's summary judgment notes that had Peay looked up before firing, he "would have seen that his alleged fear for his brother's safety was simply imagined, unfounded and unjustified."
The court, though, ruled that seven seconds was not sufficient for Peay to "assess a stressful situation," or to take his eyes off Johnson, who had just rammed his car; his belief that his brother was in danger was reasonable under the circumstances.
Peter Stirba, who represents Peay and Morgan County, said he was "pleased with decision" made by the court, which offers his client "profound vindication." Peay, he added, used force because Johnson posed a serious threat to himself and the officers around him, who were in "imminent danger of being run over by her vehicle."
There are three remaining claims in the case two against the county and one against Peay which Stirba said the court likely will dismiss when he files a motion to resolve the entire matter next week. Johnson's argument was predicated on labeling Peay's actions unconstitutional, Stirba said, an argument the court refuted.
Sykes said he and Johnson will evaluate a potential appeal in the next two weeks; he called the ruling "an unfortunate decision" with a "good chance of a reversal."
In reflecting on the police video from the incident in 2014, Johnson said, "I see I'm misbehaving, but I think it was uncalled for to shoot." Johnson's blood alcohol content that night was four times the legal limit for driving, Stirba has said.
She pleaded guilty to a third-degree-felony count of failure to respond to an officer's signal and a class B misdemeanor of driving under the influence. She was sentenced to three years of probation. None of the Morgan County officers was injured that night.
Johnson's lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount of damages.