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Lawsuit: Deputies violated rights

Sheriff’s Department says confrontation took place

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT

AMBOY – A Lee County man is suing the county for $200,000 over an encounter he believes violated his constitutional rights.

In his lawsuit, Wilson Burnell, 54, contends two Lee County sheriff’s deputies broke into his house in 2009, using pepper spray, deploying a Taser, and knocking him unconscious with a flashlight.

In its response to the lawsuit, the Sheriff’s Department says its deputies tried to restrain Burnell and used a Taser and aerosol irritant.

Burnell was not charged with any crime as a result.

The lawsuit, filed in April, names Lee County and deputies Andrew Tarr and William A. Roberts as defendants. Burnell asks for $200,000 in damages and the return of property he says was taken.

According to the lawsuit:

About 4:30 p.m. Nov. 13, 2009, Tarr and Roberts tried to force their way into Burnell’s Main Street home in Amboy without a warrant.

Burnell, who is represented by Rockford attorney Rene Hernandez, stood in his front door and refused to let the deputies in.

The deputies then used the pepper spray, with one of them pushing a Taser gun around the door and pointing it at Burnell.

The Taser was discharged, and its prongs were sent into the living room.

Burnell then bolted his door. The deputies demanded he surrender and threatened to smash his windows if he did not.

Burnell came out the front door and locked it behind him.

The deputies handcuffed him without resistance. He was then struck with a metal flashlight on the head and collarbone, knocking him unconscious, the suit says.

When Burnell awoke, Roberts was lying on his back, twisting his left leg up against his buttocks while using a Taser on his left arm.

Tarr took Burnell’s keys and demanded to know which one opened the front door.

Burnell, “while being essentially tortured by Cpl. Roberts,” identified the house key. Tarr entered the house without a warrant and the deputies seized “lawfully obtained” weapons from the house, the suit says.

Burnell was taken to the Lee County Jail and placed in a cell without being processed.

The deputies obtained a warrant from a judge shortly before 9 p.m., hours after the encounter, the suit says.

In its response, Lee County, represented by Rockford attorney Patrick Moore, denied many of Burnell’s claims but acknowledged using a Taser and an aerosol irritant. The county acknowledged a physical confrontation but didn’t give details.

Hernandez, Burnell’s attorney, said this week that authorities received a call from Burnell’s counselor asking them to check on his welfare, prompting their visit to his house. That call didn’t give the deputies the right to go into Burnell’s house, though, he said.

“We believe the officers used excessive force without cause,” he said.

The deputies had no warrant or other order from a judge to go into Burnell’s house and take him into custody, Hernandez said.

“It’s overreach by government and a constitutional violation,”Hernandez said. “It would be scary to believe that the government could get you anytime they want.”

Moore, the county’s attorney, said Burnell wasn’t charged because he got mental health treatment, which was the preference of the state’s attorney’s office.

Police agencies regularly get calls to help citizens, including cases in which people may do harm to themselves or others, he said.

“The fact that he wasn’t charged wasn’t a reflection that the officers reported this incorrectly,” Moore said.

Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said police are increasingly using welfare checks as a way to enter people’s homes.

“It’s a troubling trend,” he said. “There is a fundamental right not to interact with the police.”

Police have a right to enter a home when they are informed a crime such as a murder has occurred. But they don’t have that right when there is no report of criminal activity, Yohnka said.

Sheriff John Varga said his department wouldn’t comment on a pending lawsuit. Burnell’s phone number in Amboy is disconnected.

In 2000, Burnell pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge in Lee County. He has had no convictions or traffic violations since in the county, according to online records.

No trial date has been set.

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