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Man disputes deputies’ account

Attorney says arguments are ‘horse hockey’

Published: Friday, Sept. 20, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT

(Continued from Page 1)

DIXON – Amboy resident Wilson Burnell was minding his own business playing a computer game when Lee County sheriff’s deputies showed up at his home in November 2009, his attorney says. 

Without justification, the officers beat Burnell, took him away and conducted a warrantless search of his house, Rockford attorney Rene Hernandez wrote in a filing earlier this month.

The Lee County Sheriff’s Department and Burnell are disputing the facts about what happened on Nov. 13, 2009. Two years ago, Burnell sued the county and deputies Andrew Tarr and William Roberts. 

In August, the county, represented by Rockford attorney Patrick Moore, argued that the deputies took Burnell, now 55, into custody because a mental health professional warned authorities that Burnell may harm himself.

That account, Hernandez said, is wrong. Earlier on Nov. 13, 2009, Burnell called the VA and asked that all of his appointments be canceled, but he did not threaten to harm himself or others, according to Hernandez’s latest filing. 

A social worker called the Sheriff’s Department to check on Burnell’s welfare, never asking deputies to take him into protective custody, according to the filing. The social worker hadn’t even spoken with Burnell that day, it says. 

Hernandez cites a state law that allows a police officer, based on personal observation, to determine that a person needs to be taken into custody and go to a hospital to protect that person and others from harm.

“Here, no officer acted on anything they had observed,” Hernandez wrote. “Rather, they based their entire decision to take Wilson Burnell into custody based on a false representation of suicide and one unverified phone call made to dispatch. Nothing else.”

“Officer Tarr stated that Burnell was not free to leave once he arrived and that he was going into custody no matter what Burnell said,” he wrote. 

What’s more, he said, Tarr failed to complete the petition for involuntary admission as required by state law. 

A 1994 court decision ruled that officers must fill out petitions when they detain and transport someone for an involuntary commitment.

“The procedural safeguards are not mere technicalities to be sidestepped,” the court said. “Rather, the Legislature created them to protect people from deprivation of liberty interest.”

Tarr used a metal flashlight weighing 2 pounds and measuring 18 inches to strike Burnell in the head, the filing says. 

That was “deadly force,” according to the filing. “The fact he did not kill or severely injure Mr. Burnell is of no consequence. Any officer would know striking a citizen to the head with a metal instrument would cause death or great bodily harm.”

Tarr contends he struck Burnell in the shoulder with the flashlight. 

“Burnell states when he regained consciousness, Officer Roberts was Tasering him multiple times with his legs pushed up behind his back,” Hernandez’s filing says. 

The department maintains that Burnell was under arrest for a violent crime. 

“That never happened as evidenced,” Hernandez wrote. “That is just self-serving horse hockey.”

The department described Burnell as a “large suicidal adult” who physically resisted officers’ attempts to take him into custody. The deputies wanted a mental health professional to evaluate Burnell, according to court filings. 

By the deputies’ account, Burnell tried to barricade himself inside his home, an effort that included slamming deputies’ body parts in the door, taking a deputy’s pepper spray, and attempting to disarm another of his Taser.

In his deposition, Roberts said he had some familiarity with Burnell and that he feared Burnell was holding a gun in a hand he was hiding.

Later, the deputies found a loaded pistol on a coffee table about 6 feet from the door, Roberts said. 

The deputies said they used pepper spray and a Taser while taking Burnell into custody. 

According to Lee County’s online records, Burnell’s only criminal conviction was for misdemeanor disorderly conduct in 2000.

In his deposition, Roberts said the deputies had probable cause to arrest Burnell for resisting arrest, disarming an officer and aggravated battery, but he never was charged.

Sheriff John Varga said Thursday that he wouldn’t comment on a pending legal matter.

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