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Published September 25 2013

New details emerge in Moorhead police officers' answer to Taser lawsuit

MOORHEAD – Three Moorhead police officers being sued by a 77-year-old landlord who claims they illegally restrained him and shocked him with a Taser during a welfare check two years ago are defending their actions, saying the man had threatened to kill himself and “whack” one of his tenants.

Sgt. Steven Larsen and Officers Matthew Wychor and Daniel Birmingham on Monday filed their answer to the lawsuit filed by Moorhead landlord James Van Raden last month in U.S. District Court in Minnesota.

Van Raden is seeking unspecified damages for physical pain and injury, emotional harm and medical expenses related to the incident, which was recorded on police video.

The incident happened Aug. 23, 2011, nine days after Van Raden was arrested and charged with second-degree assault and terrorizing for allegedly threatening one of his apartment tenants with a shotgun. He denied the allegations, and the charges were later dismissed.

In their answer to the lawsuit, the officers say they were dispatched to Van Raden’s home that afternoon for a suicide welfare check after Van Raden called the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center hotline and stated he was at home, wanted to get out of the charges pending against him and that his life wasn’t worth living.

“He made it very clear that he was planning to commit suicide, and they took that claim very seriously, and as far as I’m concerned their actions likely prevented him from attempting suicide that day,” said the officers’ attorney, Jason Hiveley of Bloomington, Minn.-based Iverson Reuvers Condon.

Van Raden has previously told The Forum that he became frustrated with what he felt was the center’s slow response to his concerns, and that he called there again on Aug. 23 and said, “What do you have to do, kill yourself before you get relief from all this (crap)?”

The officers allege that when they arrived, Van Raden allowed them into his home “and explained that life was not worth living and he planned to kill himself by taking numerous pills.” In a phone interview Wednesday, Van Raden denied making those statements.

According to the officers’ answer, Van Raden then walked back to his office, sat in his chair “and pointed to a sword lying on his desk and stated he was going to ‘whack’ the tenant in his building that was causing him problems.”

Van Raden said he never made any threatening statements about the tenant. He said he told the officers the sword was there in case he needed to defend himself, because police had confiscated his firearms.

The Taser’s built-in camera captured the rest of the incident on video, showing Van Raden swearing at officers and resisting their attempts to lift him from his chair. The video also shows Van Raden, who has a heart condition, telling the officers, “Do not Taser me because I’ll probably die from it.”

The officers claim Van Raden kicked at one of them before the Taser was deployed. Van Raden claims officers lifted his leg and that police later falsely accused him of kicking Larsen.

Van Raden’s lawsuit says Larsen first shocked him without firing the Taser’s prongs – known as “drive stun” mode – before ultimately firing the prongs into his abdomen and chest.

The officers deny they unreasonably restrained Van Raden or used unreasonable or excessive force against him in violation of his Fourth Amendment constitutional right against unreasonable searches and seizures. They also deny Van Raden’s claim that they were indifferent to his medical needs.

Minnesota law allows peace officers to take a person into custody and transport the person to a licensed physician or treatment facility if the officer has reason to believe the person is mentally ill or developmentally disabled and in danger of injuring himself or others if not immediately detained. The detained person may be held for up to 72 hours.

“This was treated as someone who was in a crisis situation and needed medical attention, and they provided that for him,” Hiveley said.

The officers allege that any injuries or damages sustained by Van Raden were the result of his “careless, negligent and unlawful conduct.” They are asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528