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Tacoma to Pay Nearly $2 Million for Withholding Records from Fired Police Officer

Posted by Joseph Tully | Feb 09, 2019


It's no surprise that often times cops and civilians are not tried and processed with the same rules and public exposure. The Brady doctrine was established in 1963 after Brady v. Maryland requiring the prosecution turn over all exculpatory evidence (evidence that might exonerate the defendant) to the defendant in the criminal case. When the law is on the plaintiff side and violates this policy, it often times gets swept under the rug or ignored.

However, when Tacoma officer David O'Dea, 53, was on the other side of the courtroom, the violation resulted in the city of Tacoma, Washington paying a $1.77 million fine to O'Dea.

This fine is likely the highest of its type in Washington history. Judge Helen Whitener said she awarded the hefty fine to deter future misconduct by Tacoma officials after they wrongly withheld public records after O'Dea was terminated.

Didn't Shoot to Kill

A 22-year veteran of the Tacoma Police Department and 30-year military veteran who served on active duty and in the reserves, the former lieutenant claims his employment was terminated in June 2017 because he didn't shoot to kill a man assaulting police officers. The incident occurred in 2016 when a man initially thought involved in road rage was surrounded in his vehicle by police cars.

When attempting to leave the scene, he rammed a patrol car, then turned his car directly toward O'Dea. O'Dea then fired his weapon at the vehicle, not the driver. The driver was eventually hit by a shot from a stun gun and was arrested. After an internal investigation, the city claimed O'Dea did not follow departmental procedures regarding deadly force. O'Dea says other officers were behind the suspect's car, and he didn't want to risk shots hitting them.

He told The News Tribune, I believe what I did that day was not only in my best interest and in the best interest of the suspect — he's alive today — but also in the best interest of the department.” Once terminated, O'Dea sought the records regarding the decision leading to his firing. He alleges the internal investigation was flawed and the complete record of the incident was not thoroughly investigated.

His lawsuit for wrongful termination is still ongoing, and the trial is scheduled for May 2019. This case was filed separately by O'Dea after he was unable to obtain public records relating to his termination. He originally filed for the documents in March 2017, but city officials claim that staff never saw the requests for the records. In November 2017, O'Dea filed the nondisclosure lawsuit, but the city still didn't release the documents.

Cop vs. Criminal

It's no coincidence that a fine for public record withholding – a record fine, at that – was levied when a cop was the plaintiff. When this happens to a criminal defendant, such as occurs in a Brady violation, when the prosecutor fails to turn over exculpatory evidence to the defendant, it's a different story. Those situations tend to either get swept under the rug or ignored.

You can bet no judge has ever levied such a fine for such behavior in a criminal prosecution – where someone is facing years of prison and the cops and/or prosecution are withholding evidence that could help the accused. However, if it is going to be a cop's case that triggers such a fine, at least it's one who thought unnecessarily shooting to kill a suspect was a bad idea.

About the Author

Joseph Tully

Founding Partner, Criminal Law Specialist Our founding attorney, Joseph Tully, is sought out for his expert legal advice throughout California. With over 20 years of experience as a criminal lawyer, in 1000+ felony and other cases, Tully served as felony trial counsel as a public defender before...