Tacoma man contends deputies mistreated him at courthouse

A Tacoma man arrested two years ago after a run-in with a deputy prosecutor at the County-City Building has sued Pierce County for false arrest and various alleged constitutional violations.

Clark R. Armstrong contends sheriff’s deputies unlawfully detained and assaulted him during the Feb. 7, 2013, incident and that prosecutors retaliated against him by charging him with obstructing an officer, a case that later was dismissed.

Armstrong’s complaint in U.S. District Court seeks unspecified damages. He previously filed a claim with the county seeking $750,000.

The county has denied wrongdoing.

“None of that’s accurate,” sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said. “He had many chances to leave and didn’t.”

Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said his office would “vigorously defend our deputy prosecutor, who we believe did nothing wrong.”

The action took place on the ninth floor of the courthouse.

The 52-year-old Armstrong, who is disabled and uses a cane, was waiting in the hall for a hearing in District Court on a DUI case.

He and another man in the hall engaged in a conversation regarding the moral character of attorneys, according to witness statements.

Deputy prosecutor Gerald Ham and defense attorneys Jane Muhlstein Spencer and Martin Duenhoelter were in a nearby jury room working, court records show. The door to the jury room was open and the attorneys said they could hear Armstrong.

At one point, Ham got up to close the door, records show, and he and Armstrong exchanged words.

Who said what to whom is disputed.

Ham said in a written statement submitted to deputies that Armstong said, “I’ll kick your ass.”

Armstrong denies that, and Muhlstein Spencer submitted a statement to deputies in which she said she never heard Armstrong say that. She did say Armstrong and Ham were jawing at each other.

Video from the courthouse security system shows Armstrong talking to someone off-camera and stepping toward a doorway. He has his cane in his hand but at one point leans it against the wall near the door.

“He asked Mr. Ham if he wanted to start something and stepped closer to Mr. Ham,” Muhlstein Spencer said in her statement. “There was more argument for another moment, and Mr. Ham finally closed the door.”

Ham then asked a legal assistant in the adjacent courtroom to call security. Armstrong resumed his wait in the hall, the video shows.

“Mr. Armstrong did not observe any signs posted in the hallway restricting his ability to exercise his freedom of speech,” his lawsuit states. “At no time did any court personnel or law enforcement approach Mr. Armstrong and complain that he was talking too loud and needed to quiet his voice.”

He also did not threaten Ham, the suit states.

A few minutes later, sheriff’s deputies Dennis Robinson and Casey McEathron arrived on the ninth floor.

The video shows Robinson taking Armstrong’s cane from him and instructing him to sit on a bench. They are seen talking for several minutes.

“I was explaining to Armstrong that certain behavior was expected inside the courthouse, and I was there about a complaint that came from a judge’s assistant and a deputy prosecutor,” Robinson later wrote in a report.

“Armstrong became uncooperative and asked if he was being detained or if he was free to leave. I told him he was free to leave the building and handed him his cane.”

Duenhoelter had left the jury room by this point and was in another part of the hall talking to a client. The attorney told The News Tribune he did not see what happened but could hear the exchange between Robinson and Armstrong.

“I heard that deputy escalate the thing with the black guy,” Duenhoelter said. Armstrong is African-American. “I just thought this was so horrible, just way, way over the top.”

The video then shows Armstrong walking a few steps away before Robinson confronts him again.

Robinson wrote that he was reminding Armstrong that appropriate behavior was expected in the courthouse if he was going to remain.

“He told me he was not going to have any more discussion with me, and I motioned for him to sit down on a bench as I reached for his cane,” the deputy wrote.

Instead, Robinson wrote, Armstrong pulled his cane away and told the deputy not to touch him.

“He suddenly raised the cane several inches off the ground, and, as I saw it coming up, I pushed him down on the bench that was behind him and disarmed him of the cane,” Robinson wrote.

The video, which has no sound, shows Robinson walking up to Armstrong, who turned to face him. At one point, the tip of Armstrong’s cane comes off the floor, but he is not seen raising the cane over his head or striking at Robinson.

Armstrong then was arrested.

He contends Robinson’s actions were tantamount to battery and and that he was arrested for no reason.