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Powell police suit begins in federal court

Civil rights trial slated to last two weeks

A Powell woman’s claims that the Powell Police Department used excessive force in searching her home for illegal drugs are being presented to a federal jury in Cheyenne this week.

The jury will be asked to help determine whether Powell police violated Tricia Wachsmuth’s constitutional rights in seizing two marijuana plants in a February 2009 search of her and her husband Bret’s home.

Trial proceedings began Monday in the U.S. District Court of Wyoming in Cheyenne, with the parties’ attorneys working Monday afternoon to seat a jury. Judge Alan Johnson is presiding in the civil case.

Tricia Wachsmuth claims police failed to knock and announce their presence before knocking down her door with a battering ram in violation of her Fourth Amendment rights. She also alleges officers recklessly deployed a flashbang and used her as a human shield as they searched the basement of her East North Street home, among other complaints.

The city of Powell, Police Chief Tim Feathers and 11 individual officers involved in the search or investigation are named as defendants in the suit.

Wachsmuth says she was alone in the house at the time of the search, and she was watching TV on the couch a few feet away from the front door.

Police contest her account — saying they knocked, announced their presence and waited a reasonable amount of time for her to open the door, especially given information they had that the Wachsmuths were paranoid and had firearms throughout their residence. Police say the flashbang was used appropriately, and that they hadn’t wanted Tricia Wachsmuth to go first down the basement stairs.

While only two marijuana plants were found in the raid, police say a grow log seized from the residence shows up to 11 others were being grown shortly before the search on Feb. 24, 2009.

Along with the two plants and various drug paraphernalia, four guns were recovered from the home.

Bret and Tricia Wachsmuth ultimately pleaded guilty to misdemeanor counts related to drug possession; they received small fines and probation, but served no jail time.

Nearly the entire department was used in the search and as a result, at least 10 current and one former Powell police officers are expected to be called upon to testify in the trial, in addition to Chief Feathers.

Feathers said the department — which has only one active officer not expected to testify — will rotate personnel back and forth as they’re called to the trial in Cheyenne.

“It will incur some (overtime) to cover, but we won’t have so many gone at once we can’t cover,” he said.

Feathers said the department was provided with an anticipated schedule of witnesses to allow the department to plan.

He said it was his understanding the plaintiff’s case would take up this week, with the defense presenting its case next week.

Court documents indicate that Wachsmuth’s attorney, Jeff Gosman of Casper, plans to call other local law enforcement personnel — including Tom Wachsmuth, Bret’s father and a special agent with the Wyoming Department of Criminal Investigation’s Powell office. Tom Wachsmuth said in his deposition that he is upset with the way the search of his son and daughter-in-law was handled.

Lt. Dave Patterson of the Park County Sheriff’s Office is also listed as a witness for the plaintiff; Patterson said in written statement filed with the court that he felt the police department hadn’t done their homework before performing the search.

Other sheriff’s and DCI personnel may be called upon to testify in the case on either side.

Then-Deputy County Attorney Jonathon Davis, who sat in on the interview with the confidential informant and helped prepare the affidavit of probable cause used to get the search warrant, is expected to testify that he did not have concerns about the planning of the search.

Each side will call expert witnesses differing on the reasonableness of the police department’s actions and whether Tricia Wachsmuth suffered psychological damage as a result of the search.

Wachsmuth could receive up to $1 million in damages if she prevails in the case.

Local Government Liability Pool attorney Tom Thompson of Rawlins is representing the police and city in their official capacities while Senior Assistant Attorney General Misha Westby of Cheyenne is representing the officers and chief in their individual capacities.

The trial is expected to last eight to 10 days.

1 comment

  • posted by JB

    February 15, 2011 12:43 pm

    We WILL be paying real close attention to this.

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