A Lancaster man who was shocked with a Taser by a city officer as he sat, unarmed, on a curb two years ago can proceed with his excessive-force lawsuit, a federal judge has ruled.
But if Sean Williams wins, he’ll have to forfeit $10,000 of whatever he is awarded, the judge said.
That’s in part because Williams didn’t show up for the start of his trial on Feb. 10. Williams, 29, of Lancaster, had been arrested the night before; Police said they found him high on PCP, a hallucinogenic drug, on North Queen Street.
The city, which is defending Officer Philip Bernot, had asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Henry S. Perkin to dismiss the case. It argued Williams failed to follow through with his case by not showing up to court, among other reasons.
Perkin agreed with the city on most of its reasons but said the merits of Williams’ claim outweighed reasons to dismiss. The ruling is a procedural win for Williams that allows the case to continue.
“ ... This court found that (Williams) had sufficient facts to submit the question of excessive force to a jury,” Perkin wrote in his June 8 decision. “Further, the video of the incident presents strong factual evidence from which the jury could find that the force used by Officer Bernot was excessive in light of the level of resistance or compliance exhibited by plaintiff and immediate threat to the officer.”
Williams’ attorney, Matthew B. Weisberg, said, “This is an important case at an important tipping point in time for people like Mr. Williams and perhaps all of us. We are prepared to go to trial on the matter's merits."
Weisberg was referring to the national discussion on police brutality following the death of George Floyd, who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer who kept his knee to Floyd's death for nearly nine minutes.
Bernot shocked Williams after he failed to follow directions from police who were responding to a disturbance on South Prince Street near West King Street on June 28, 2018. Williams, who was sitting unarmed on a curb, has said he was confused by conflicting commands being given by two officers.
The county prosecutor at the time, District Attorney Craig Stedman, criticized Bernot’s actions but did not file criminal charges against the officer because he was following department policy.
Williams initially sued the city and Bernot, both in his capacity as a police officer and individually, claiming excessive force, failing to provide adequate medical care and racial profiling. Williams is black, Bernot is white.
The racial-profiling and failure-to-help claims were dropped and a judge dismissed the excessive-force claim against the city and Bernot in his professional capacity.
That means the case is only against Bernot as a private individual. The city is covering his legal costs under its labor contract with police.
Williams is seeking more than $75,000 from Bernot. His summary public drunkenness charge for the February arrest is pending.