County Still on the Hook for SWAT Team | Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, November 29, 2023
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County Still on the Hook for SWAT Team

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A federal judge preserved some of a widow's claims that Sonoma County is liable for her husband's death by suicide when police officers responded to a domestic dispute with a military assault vehicle, concussion bombs and chemical gas.

Glenn Swindell and his wife Sarah got into an argument while driving home from a "work function" on May 16, 2014. When they got home, Glen and their two children went in the house, but Sarah stayed outside in the car.

Glenn and Sarah continued the argument through the house's locked front door, and Sarah eventually called 911 "for assistance getting her children."

Assuming the truth of the complaint, U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti described what happened next, in his 20-page, Oct. 21 ruling.

Sonoma County sheriffs deputies arrived and Glenn released the children, but refused to let the officers inside his home. The officers, angry that Swindell would not let them in, lied to other officers about statements he had made about police on Facebook, and made it known that Swindell owned two guns, legally.

They allegedly lied to obtain a warrant to get inside the house, stating that Swindell had committed battery, had imprisoned Sarah, had barricaded himself inside, cut off communications with them and that he used his guns in committing a felony.

The deputies threatened to take Sarah's children away from her when she asked them to "de-escalate" the situation, and instead escalated it by calling in a SWAT team, which used a military assault vehicle, concussion bombs and chemical agents to break down the garage door and enter the house.

At one point a SWAT supervisor yelled, "Why don't you just kill the fucker!" according to the 33-page federal complaint.

The SWAT team then pumped gas into the attic, where a terrified Swindell had taken refuge. He shot himself.

Sarah Swindell sued Sonoma County in February, and amended the complaint in June, alleging 11 claims, including unreasonable search and seizure, violations of due process, violations of the First and Second Amendments, assault and battery, wrongful death and municipal liability.

The county filed a motion to dismiss on July 15, for failure to state a claim.

It argued that the claim for municipal liability, including violations of Glenn Swindell's First, Second, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, does not state facts showing a violation of the Second or Fourteenth Amendments.

Judge Conti agreed.

"The FAC [first amended complaint] alleges that sheriff deputies knew that Glenn lawfully owned firearms and assumes, in conclusory fashion, that the alleged unlawful search and seizure must have been, in part, retaliation for owning firearms. Plaintiffs' conclusory allegations are insufficient to state a claim based on a violation of the Second Amendment. Moreover, Plaintiffs do not allege facts showing an interference with Glenn's right to possess a gun. To the contrary, the FAC states that Glenn kept multiple guns in his home."

Conti noted that the county did not challenge the widow's fifth claim, for First and Fourth Amendment violations, and let those claims survive. He dismissed the rest of the complaint, with leave to amend.

He dismissed with prejudice the claims for interference with familial integrity and dismissed the wrongful death claim with leave to amend within 30 days.

The county argued that the claim for civil rights violations should be dismissed because it "fails to show threats, coercion or intimidation independent from the underlying claims of unlawful search and seizure," but Conti rejected. He refused to dismiss based on plaintiffs' allegation that the defendants used "excessive force in addition to an unlawful search and seizure, including that defendants used a military assault vehicle, concussion bombs and chemical agents to enter Glenn Swindell's home and that they unnecessarily pumped gas into the attic which ultimately led Glenn to take his own life."

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