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Jenkins v. Chance

United States District Court, D. Colorado

April 30, 2018

WILLIAM JENKINS, and TOBIE JENKINS, Plaintiffs,
v.
COREY CHANCE, MICHAEL HEIDINGER, ATTILA DENES, NICHOLAS ARNONE, and DOUGLAS COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE, Defendants, No.

          ORDER

          Scott T. Varholak United States Magistrate Judge

          This matter comes before the Court on Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (the “Motion”) [#11], filed by Defendants Corey Chance, Michael Heidinger, Attila Denes, Nicholas Arnone, and the Douglas County Sheriff's Office. The Motion is before the Court on the Parties' consent to have a United States magistrate judge conduct all proceedings in this action and to order the entry of a final judgment. [##13, 14] This Court has carefully considered the Motion and related briefings, the entire case file, and the applicable case law, and has determined that oral argument would not materially assist in the disposition of the Motion. For the following reasons, the Motion is GRANTED and Plaintiffs' Complaint [#1] is DISMISSED.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND[1]

         Plaintiffs' Complaint arises from the tragic death of their son Jayson Jenkins following a three minute interaction with Defendants Corey Chance and Michael Heidinger, deputies with the Douglas County Sheriff's Department. [#1 at 1; #5-1[2] at ¶ f] Early on the morning of February 3, 2015, Jayson discussed suicide with a friend before traveling to a nearby park. [#5-1 at ¶ b] While sitting in a tree grove at the park, Jayson fired a gun[3] he had brought with him “to release some of the emotions which were triggering his talk of suicide.” [Id. at ¶ c]

         When Defendants Chance and Heidinger encountered Jayson, he was sitting with the rifle between his legs and talking to his mother on the phone. [Id. at ¶¶ e, m] Defendant Chance approached Jayson with his duty weapon drawn and ordered Jayson to put down his rifle. [Id. at ¶ e] Jayson told Defendant Chance he was not going to shoot him or point the rifle towards him. [Id. at ¶ p] Believing he was in no personal danger, Defendant Chance switched from his duty gun to his Taser. [Id.] Jayson asked Defendant Chance to move back and explained he was trying to talk to his mother. [Id. at ¶ m] Defendant Chance informed Jayson he could talk to his mother shortly and suggested Jayson talk with him first. [Id. at ¶ n]

         Jayson placed the muzzle of the rifle in or near his mouth, with his thumb on the trigger, at least once during the encounter. [Id. at ¶ r] Plaintiffs allege that despite Jayson threatening himself, Defendant Chance nevertheless continued to pressure him, and disregarded the value of allowing Jayson to speak with his mother. [Id. at ¶¶ n, r] Plaintiffs further allege that Defendants never meaningfully attempted to deescalate the situation or radio that they were dealing with a potential suicide. [Id. at ¶ f]

         While Jayson's thumb was on the rifle's trigger and the “muzzle was near or in” Jayson's mouth, Defendant Chance fired his Taser. [#1 at 1; #5-1 at ¶¶ o, r, s] The rifle and Taser went off “basically at the same time.” [#5-1 at ¶¶ u-v] Plaintiffs argue that Jayson involuntarily pulled the trigger because his body convulsed in response to the electrical charge from the Taser. [#1 at 5, 22; #5-1 at ¶¶ x-dd] Plaintiffs allege, therefore, that Jayson's death was caused by Defendant Chance deploying his Taser while Jayson had the rifle in his mouth and his thumb on the trigger. [Id.]

         On February 4, 2015, the day after Jayson's death, forensic pathology consultant Dr. Michael Burson performed an autopsy and issued a report describing a “self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head” as the cause of death, suicide as the manner of death, and citing to Jayson's alleged suicidal history. [#5-16-2(B) at 7-8] The autopsy noted the existence of a “thermal burn” on Jayson's leg. [Id. at 5; see also #1 at 19] Douglas County Coroner Jill Romann also completed a report, listing a “self-inflicted gunshot wound” as the cause of death, and the manner of death as “suicide.” [#5-16-2(A); see also #5-16-3]

         On October 21, 2015, Plaintiffs submitted a detailed “Request for Further Investigation and Information” (“the Request”) to Coroner Romann and Dr. Burson, requesting the Coroner's Office to reopen the investigation into Jayson's death, and asking both officials to reconsider listing “self-inflicted gunshot” as the cause of death “if there [wa]s doubt as to whether or not” the Taser impacted “the firing of the Rifle.” [#5-16-1 at 22] Plaintiffs also requested that the officials exclude incorrect references to Jayson's suicidal history from their reports. [Id. at 5] The Request cites to extensive evidence from a variety of sources to support Plaintiffs' position that the electrical shock from the Taser caused Jayson to pull the trigger. Plaintiffs examined the manual and product information for the Taser used by Defendant Chance and explained that the Taser was “designed to cause ‘involuntary muscle contractions, '” such that the Taser “could have inadvertently caused [Jayson] to push the trigger.” [Id. at 9 (emphasis omitted); see also Id. at 11 (“These excerpts are related specifically to the TASER X2 deployment relative to the firing of the Rifle and the possibility that [t]he Rifle was triggered by the electricity emitted from the TASER X2.” (emphasis omitted))]

         Plaintiffs also provided both transcripts and video footage of interviews with multiple parties, including Defendants Denes, Arnone, Chance, and Heidinger, as further evidence that the rifle may have been “triggered by the electricity emitted from the [Taser].” [Id. at 11-20; see also #5-16 (Videos)] For example, Plaintiffs cited to an interview with Defendant Denes, who stated that the Taser deployment was “possibly what precipitated . . . the shooting to have occurred right exactly when it did.” [#5-16-1 at 12 (emphasis omitted)] Plaintiffs also included a statement by Defendant Arnone, who recalled that the deployment of the gun and the Taser “was kind of simultaneous.” [Id. at 15 (emphasis omitted)] Plaintiffs argued that pursuant to Arnone's recollection, it was “clear that the Taser and the Rifle went off at the same time.” [Id.] Plaintiffs concluded, “[i]t is clear that if [Defendant Chance] deployed the [Taser] while [Jayson] had the Rifle in his mouth, such deployment may be considered at a minimum reckless.” [Id. at 21]

         Plaintiffs filed an additional document titled, “Addendum to: Request for Further Investigation and Information” (“the Addendum”), with Romann and Dr. Burson on February 3, 2016. [#5-17] The Addendum included additional citations to interviews with Defendants, largely repeating the information from the original Request, and also provided more details with respect to the impact of Taser deployment on the body's motor nervous system. [Id.]

         In 2016, Dr. Burson amended his autopsy report to state the manner of death was “undetermined” and to remove references to Jayson's disputed history of suicide. [#5-4-1 at 2; see also #5-6; #12 at 3-4] Dr. Burson continued to report that the cause of death was a self-inflicted gunshot wound of the head. [#5-4-1 at 2] Dr. Burson opined that though Jayson “exhibited suicidal gestures and clearly suffered a self-inflicted gunshot wound of the head[, ] there remain questions as to the precise timing of the events which lead up to the firing of the weapon, ” including whether the deployment of the Taser contributed to the firing of the weapon. [Id.] However, Dr. Burson deferred to the Douglas County Coroner for the final determination of Jayson's manner of death. [Id.] Plaintiffs did not receive notice of the change in Dr. Burson's report until January 10, 2017. [#12 at 3, 4; see also #5-4-2] The Coroner, on the other hand, did not change the manner of death listed in her report, and issued a memorandum explaining that decision. [#5-6] After considering in detail the evidence raised in Plaintiffs' Request, including law enforcement interviews, Jayson's mental health history, and an article discussing the impact of a Taser's electrical impulses on a target, the Coroner concluded that the manner of death would remain suicide. [Id.] The Coroner noted that “[t]here is a possibility that contact [with the Taser] was made to [Jayson's] right lower leg, ” but stated that she was in “no position to guess what probability contact was made.”[4] [Id.] Plaintiffs' Complaint alleges that the Coroner's failure to include or consider the “thermal burn” listed in Dr. Burson's autopsy report is evidence of the Coroner's “direct attempt to cover up and protect” the Sheriff's Department. [#1 at 19]

         Plaintiffs filed the instant suit on November 17, 2017 under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of the Second, Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Amendments. [#1 at 4-8] Defendants filed their Motion to Dismiss on December 12, 2017. [#11] Plaintiffs oppose the Motion [#12], and Defendants have filed a reply [#15].

         11. ...


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