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Saline County man sues Marshall police officers, city

A Saline County man has accused two Marshall police officers of arresting and assaulting him last summer at a Sonic Drive-In without probable cause.

Harlan Fletcher, 65, has sued the officers, police chief, a Sonic manager and the city of Marshall after a Saline County judge ruled that drugs found in his car during the August search were obtained illegally. Prosecutors then dropped the drug and resisting arrest charges against him.

According to the lawsuit, filed by Fletcher’s attorney Andy Hirth, Fletcher, a disabled Vietnam War veteran, had ordered a milkshake from the Sonic in Marshall, but spilled it on the floor of his truck. While he was attempting to clean it up, Sonic manager Jacob Estes noticed Fletcher looked passed out because he was “slumped over the wheel” and then called 911. A car hop had also noticed a bottle of tequila in his hand.

Officers Troy Johnston and Samuel Gibson responded to the call and began to question Fletcher. The lawsuit indicates neither smelled any alcohol and the bottles in the car were empty because Fletcher collected old bottles. Gibson knew Fletcher and was aware that he collected them and “often walked creek bottoms to find old bottles.”

The officers asked Fletcher multiple times to get out of the car and give them the car keys, but Fletcher said he didn’t have to because the officers had no probable cause to believe he was committing a crime.

Hirth said that Fletcher couldn’t get out of the car on the driver’s side because it was too close to the menu, but also couldn’t get out the passenger’s side door because he is disabled. Fletcher did continue to say it didn’t have to get out because “he wasn’t doing anything wrong.”

That’s when officers allegedly grabbed Fletcher through the window and tried to get his car keys but Fletcher resisted. Johnston sprayed Fletcher with pepper spray and the two forced him out of the passenger’s side window. Cellphone video shows the two officers violently arresting Fletcher.

Hirth said that the video also shows the manager, Estes, getting involved in the arrest without being asked which is why he is also named in the lawsuit.

Officers then searched the car and found marijuana and meth. Fletcher faced drug and resisting arrest charges, but they were were dropped.

Since the charges were dropped, the original probable cause statement was not immediately available but according to the Marshall Democrat-News who wrote about the arrest at the time, officers said Fletcher appeared to be “under the influence of a stimulant drug.” They also indicated in the probable cause statement that Fletcher tried to hide a bag and was annoyed when officers asked about it. The paper said that the probable cause statement described “attempts of the two officers to prevent Fletcher from starting the ignition of the vehicle and drive away.”

When he wouldn’t comply with giving them his keys, officers said they pepper sprayed him and removed him from the vehicle, but Fletcher continued to resist, “slamming his own head on the ground.”

The lawsuit has similarities to the officers’ account of the incident but also said that the statements in Johnston’s incident report were “contradicted by the video captured by Johnston’s body camera” and his probable cause statement “includes alleged observations of Plaintiff’s conduct which Johnston could not have witnessed from the locations he claims to have been in while observing the conduct.”

Fletcher was hospitalized for his injuries. Hirth said they are hoping to “put Mr. Fletcher in the position he would have been in if this hadn’t happened.”

This not the first time in recent memory the Marshall Police Department has been under the microscope. Last summer, the Saline County prosecutor dropped a number of charges against a man who had been accused of pointing a gun at a police officer’s head because video evidence showed officers fabricated reports about the incident.

The charges stemmed from an incident in which police tried to arrest Carl Roettgen in May 2015. At the time, police had said Roettgen got away after pointing a gun at an officer’s head and pulled the trigger, but the gun didn’t go off. Roettgen then left the scene, and was caught in Alabama a couple of weeks later.

Prosecutor Donald Stouffer said video of the incident he reviewed as he prepared for trial didn’t match up with written statements from the police officers involved. Based on the discrepancies, Stouffer said he determined jurors wouldn’t be able to find the officers’ accounts credible and the officers’ statements about the incident were “questionable at best.”

ABC17 News reached out to Marshall Police Department’s spokesperson Roger Gibson and was told he would be in the office at 4 p.m. Thursday. When we called back, we were told he wouldn’t be in until Saturday.

ABC17 News also reached out to Sonic and a spokesperson said they were looking into the claims.

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