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A federal court jury has awarded nearly $300,000 to a Utah couple who claimed that two West Valley City police officers violated their civil rights and used excessive force during a drug bust nearly four years ago.
The jurors deliberated for more than eight hours on Friday before reaching their verdict, according to federal court records. The verdict came after a week of testimony about an Oct. 26, 2012 incident when John Coyle then the lieutenant of the city's Neighborhood Narcotics Unit and Detective Sean McCarthy and other officers searched a home where Terry and Brandy Christiansen were living. A physical fight took place between Coyle and Terry Christiansen, and McCarthy at some point searched Brandy Christiansen.
The jury found that the two officers violated the Christiansen's Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure, though they did not find that the officers used excessive force or violated the couple's right to be free from unreasonable search.
Jurors found that Coyle must pay $25,000 to Terry Christiansen for compensatory damages and $250,000 in punitive damages. McCarthy must pay Brandy Christiansen $5,000 in compensatory damages and another $5,000 in punitive damages, according to court records.
"We are gratified that the citizens of Utah have held West Valley accountable for their illegal behavior," said Los Angeles-based attorney Mark Geragos, one of the Christiansen's attorneys. "The award for punitive damages should be a clear signal that West Valley is out of control."
The Christiansens claim Coyle slammed the husband's head into walls, knocked his teeth loose and held him in a choke hold until he was unconscious.
The wife was illegally searched about four times, the lawsuit alleges, including by McCarthy, who she claims put his hands down her pants and touched her vaginal area under the guise of looking for drugs.
The husband and wife were both arrested, and Terry Christiansen was later charged with aggravated assault, drug and weapon charges. Terry Christiansen spent six months in jail before the charges were dropped but later refiled while his wife spent a few days in custody and no charges were ever filed against her.
West Valley City Attorney Eric Bunderson said Monday that the city was "disappointed" in the jury's decision.
"We plan to file an appeal after our full review of the verdict," he said in a brief statement.
Attorneys say the police officers went to the home because of a tip that there was marijuana in the home. While Coyle was in the home, Terry Christiansen became nervous and reached for his waistband, criminal charges allege. The lieutenant saw him remove a clear vial and ordered Terry Christiansen to show his hands, according to charges. Instead, Terry Christiansen ran toward the back of the home, where a struggle ensued and the man sliced Coyle's thumb with a knife, charges state.
Police say that at some point, Terry Christiansen who was on parole at that time tried to flush the vial down the toilet. The drugs were later removed from the toilet by another officer, according to police, and the crystal substance inside field-tested positive for methamphetamine.
The Christiansens' attorney, David Gammill, alleged in his closing argument that a vial of meth was not found that day, and that the police somehow planted the drugs into the case file at some point after the Christiansens were arrested.
Gammill further argued that the police officers' versions of events just didn't make sense. If Terry Christiansen had fished the drugs out of his waistband as officers said he did, and then wielded a knife and attacked Coyle, he would have been shot by the officers, Gammill claimed.
The attorney had asked the jurors to return a "devastating" verdict of $10.5 million in both compensatory and punitive damages.
Blake Hamilton, who represented the two officers named in the suit, argued in response that the Christiansens were looking for a payday in the midst of a controversial disbanding of the Neighborhood Narcotics Unit. A 2013 investigation revealed unit officers were too slow to book evidence, failed to file police reports after displaying their guns, and placed GPS tracking devices on suspects' cars without first gaining a court order to do so, among other problems.
State and federal prosecutors ultimately tossed out more than 120 cases linked to the unit Terry Christiansen's included, although his case was refiled in 2014 and has yet to be resolved.
The Christiansens also sued several other WVC officers, West Valley City and former Chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen, but they were eventually dismissed as defendants prior to last week's trial.