Lawsuit Filed Against Lee County Sheriff's Office

A local man, Steven Wayne Thomas, 35, has filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, claiming deputies used excessive force against him during an arrest in April of 2009. Mr. Thomas claims deputies broke his jaw and used a taser on him 11 times during the course of an arrest for damaging a woman’s fence in April.

Thomas’ suit seeks $3 million in compensatory damages and unspecified punitive damages. The 72-page lawsuit also claims that deputies held Thomas in the Lee County Jail and Central Prison in Raleigh for more than three days without allowing him to post bond.“The Lee County Sheriff’s Department acted recklessly and clearly used excessive force on Thomas, a lifelong Lee County resident with no criminal history,” said Kieran Shanahan, an attorney with Shanahan Law Group in Raleigh. “My client and I are both pro-law enforcement, but this is a clear case of law enforcement going to far.”

According to the suit, Thomas was working with chemicals on April 27, 2009 in a tobacco field at his Castleberry Road home when he became “disoriented” due to exposure. While a friend was driving Thomas to the hospital, he got out of the friend’s vehicle and began damaging a decorative fence at a residence on St. Andrews Church Road. The owner of the home is reported to have called sheriff’s deputies. When deputies responded, the suit claims they almost immediately used a taser and pepper spray to subdue Thomas and then chased him through a nearby field. Once he was stopped, the suit claims several deputies physically assaulted him, breaking his jaw, and continued to use tasers on him. Several other deputies watched without intervening, the suit claims. Lee County Sheriff Tracy Carter, who is named as a defendant in the suit (the suit claims he arrived and “observed his deputies” abusing Thomas), said Thursday he was aware of the situation but hadn’t received any formal notice of the lawsuit. He said he “stood behind” the actions of his deputies and that the county would fight the allegations.“The officers responded to a situation where they knew (Thomas) was being combative, and I feel like they used a reasonable amount of force,” he said. “I’m glad they had their tasers because it could have been much worse.”According to Carter, the confrontation began when Thomas shoved the responding deputy into his patrol vehicle so hard that it caused damage to the patrol vehicle. Later, during this same incident, Mr. Thomas spat on two other deputies that were assisting. Carter also said that witness reports from the incident indicate that Thomas was hitting himself in the head with a brick and that Thomas “admitted to several of the officers that he’d used cocaine that day.”
The lawsuit addresses the alleged cocaine use, citing “false and baseless accusations” and noting that a toxicology test at Central Carolina Hospital reportedly showed no evidence of drug use on Thomas’ part. Further, the suit alleges that Thomas wasn’t advised of his constitutional rights or allowed to make a phone call to post bail for more than three days, despite the fact that a magistrate had set his bond. The suit also names several state Department of Correction employees — Thomas was taken to Central Prison for holding while he was in custody — who allegedly declined to give him pain medication which doctors prescribed following surgery to repair his jaw. The suit also claims that Thomas was secretly videotaped after being released from custody in an effort to find “incriminating statements.”Carter said the county is “ready to have our day in court” and that “the facts will be heard.”

Thomas is the son of Steve Thomas, a tobacco farmer who found himself caught in an election-related scandal in the fall of 2008. The elder Thomas’ name appeared on a financial disclosure form related to the purchase of signs opposing the candidacy of Lee County Board of Commissioners hopeful Herb Hincks, although Thomas declined buying the signs. He later said he was duped into signing the form by a person whose identity he never disclosed. Lee County Commissioner Jamie Kelly later came forward and admitted purchasing the signs.

Criminal charges are set to be heard in August in the Lee County Superior court.

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