Federal Lawsuit Says Vancouver Police Illegally Searched, Arrested Black Resident

Jul 10, 2020

A pair of Vancouver police officers illegally searched a 27-year-old Black man’s home last year and arrested him for breaking a television in his home, according to a new federal lawsuit against the city.

Despite prosecutors dismissing the arrest charges months later, the officers never faced consequences until the man complained months later to the Vancouver police chief, then took the city to court.

Jabo Johnigan, a software engineer, says the officers violated his civil rights. The suit also says Chief Jim McElvain implicitly endorsed the actions by failing to punish the officers after the case was dismissed.

Johnigan’s attorney, Angus Lee, told OPB he is seeking at least $500,000 in damages. City officials deny wrongdoing.

Johnigan’s suit comes as governments and politicians in southwest Washington take steps to show they condemn systemic racism. Some local politicians continue to deny it exists in the region.

According to the lawsuit, Vancouver officers Christopher Bohatch and Scotland Hammond, who are both white, arrested Johnigan March 13, 2019, after Johnigan’s girlfriend, Israel Young, called 911 about an argument.

Young told dispatchers there were no weapons or violence involved. She said there were no drugs involved, either. When police arrived, she said she couldn’t permit them to enter the house because she didn’t own it — Johnigan did.

In later reports — approved by police supervisors — both officers said they entered without a warrant. Bohatch also repeated as much in interviews with prosecutors, the suit states.

The officers allegedly entered the house and told Johnigan to “shut his mouth” before “interrogating” him in his bedroom next to his sleeping infant son.

Hammond and Bohatch arrested Johnigan for a misdemeanor — breaking the television. The suit says neither officer read Johnigan his Miranda rights.

Johnigan spent the night in jail, the suit says, and attended his first court hearing in handcuffs and shackles. Johnigan told OPB that, until then, he had never been arrested before.

“I’m trying to build a brand off my credibility and name as a Black software engineer,” Johnigan said. “I’m thankful I guess nobody’s tried to publicly confront me yet in the job process.”

Seven months after his arrest, city attorneys had the case dismissed, citing a lack of evidence. Then, on Jan. 2, Johnigan emailed Chief McElvain, frustrated the officers faced no repercussions.

“As both officers are white, and I am black, I can’t help but suspect that they felt they could get away with this because of my race,” he said. “They should be held accountable for their actions.”

When asked why he is suing the city now, Johnigan said he has been preparing for months. He said he’s seeking justice, and it happens to coincide with larger protests against police brutality against Black Americans.

“I’m really trying to make sure my voice and my story and my incident is heard. And that other people can see that this is a problem,” he said. “That this is something that’s going on underneath their noses.”

The city of Vancouver on Monday passed a resolution condemning systemic racism. Two weeks ago, Clark County’s top elected official denied systemic racism exists in the region. Likewise, the rural town of Yacolt shunned a proclamation that would have acknowledged systemic racism.

Dan Lloyd, an assistant city attorney representing the two officers, told OPB that the officers’ actions are “consistent with the requirements of the Fourth Amendment,” which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure.

“When officers Bohatch and Hammond arrived, this 911 caller gave the officers consent to enter so they could view a video she had taken of the crime,” Lloyd said. “While there was no warrant, there was permission to enter.”

Lloyd denied race played any role in the events.

“The allegation that race played a role in anyway in this incident is absolutely and categorically false,” Lloyd wrote in a statement. “Mr. Johnigan was identified by name in the 9-1-1 call, was seen in a video committing the crime, and did not deny committing the crime. We will defend this lawsuit aggressively and vigorously.”

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