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ACLU sues Minnesota police department for excessive force claims following traffic stop

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Anthony Promvongsa / Special to Forum News Service2 / 2

WORTHINGTON, Minn. -- Allegations of excessive force after a traffic stop in Worthington are the center of a lawsuit filed Wednesday, Nov. 15, by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota against Worthington, its police department and a drug task force unit.

In a news release, the ACLU-MN said it represents Anthony Promvongsa, a Worthington resident stopped in July 2016, in a case filed against Worthington, its police department, the Buffalo Ridge Drug Task Force and individual officers.

The suit claims the city and its police department did not enforce excessive force policies, failed to properly document incidents of force, did not properly investigate allegations of excessive force and generally engaged "in a policy, pattern of practice, or custom of failing to reprimand or discipline any officer for excessive force."

The lawsuit said Promvongsa was assaulted after he was stopped by Buffalo Ridge Drug Trask Force Officer Joe Joswiak and Worthington Police Sgt. Tim Gaul. Officers accused Promvongsa of tailgating two off-duty officers.

"Within seconds of Promvongsa’s vehicle being stopped Agent Joswiak approached the vehicle with a weapon drawn and started screaming at Promvongsa to 'Get the [expletive] out of the car, mother [expletive], show me your hands,'" the news release said. "He then immediately yanks open the door and begins violently pulling Promvongsa from the vehicle before Promvongsa can even remove his seat belt."

Joswiak struck Promvongsa with a knee and punched him while the driver was in the vehicle, and "the audio on the police dash cam appeared to be intentionally shut off by Sergeant Gaul" within a few seconds, the release said.

“The assault has left me feeling uncomfortable and scared," Promvongsa said in the release. "When Officer Joswiak approached my car with his gun out, I thought I was going to die. I’m suing the officers who did this to me because I don’t want this to happen to anyone else, the officers need to be held accountable for their actions.”

The ACLU-MN said Promvongsa didn't have time to obey officer commands before turning to force and he didn't represent a threat to officers to warrant use of force.

The incident was recorded by Joswiak's dashcam. Footage, which depicts Joswiak pulling a gun on Promvongsa before punching and kneeing him, was obtained by the ACLU and released in June.

On Wednesday, the ACLU-MN said despite releasing the footage from the incident earlier this year and an official complaint against the two officers, neither man received any discipline stemming from the assault.

"We have commissioned an independent investigation and report and it is due in the next two weeks," Worthington Mayor Mike Kuhle said Wednesday in response to the allegations. "I think it’s very unfortunate that the ACLU has chosen to file a lawsuit ahead of the city being able to review the independent investigation and giving the city a chance to respond to that report.

"The city of Worthington and the police department does have a use of force policy and it is taken seriously," Kuhle added.

The news release from ACLU-MN said it is seeking more than $500,000 damages for Promvongsa and wants the courts to recognize the incident as part of a pattern and practice of misbehavior by the Worthington Police Department and the Buffalo Ridge Drug Task Force.

“Everyone has a right to be treated with dignity and respect by law enforcement. The brutal assault against Anthony Promvongsa violated his rights,” Teresa Nelson, legal director of the ACLU-MN, said in the release. “This assault, and the lack of discipline against the officers involved, is part of a pattern and practice by the Worthington Police Department and the Buffalo Ridge Drug Task Force who routinely fail to hold their officers accountable for their actions.”

In August, Promvongsa pleaded guilty to fifth-degree assault with intent to cause fear. He admitted that he drove recklessly by driving in close proximity to a police officer. That officer, according to a police report, called dispatch to report the reckless driving. That's when Joswiak began looking for Promvongsa, and eventually pulled him over.

ACLU Attorney Ian Bratlie said Joswiak and Gaul weren't involved with the original incident, as charges that Promvongsa swerved his car at Joswiak were dropped during his plea agreement.

"Regardless, if you're alleging the police can beat up anybody for traffic violations, you're nuts," Bratlie said. "People should not be attacked for traffic violations, and there's certainly no reason for anybody to think the police had any authority to do what they did -- they didn't. There's no justifying Officer Joswiak's actions."

Bratlie said Gaul had been charged on prior occasions with excessive force. Based on conversations with officials and community members, Bratlie added, Joswiak's history of excessive force "wasn't exactly a secret."

In a phone interview Wednesday, Promvongsa said he had his hands up and seatbelt on when Joswiak approached his vehicle. Joswiak then pulled the door open and delivered several knee strikes and a punch to the unarmed Promvongsa.

"I was scared for my life," Promvongsa said. "I've never been that scared, ever."

Promvongsa also alleges he was seriously hurt, and officers didn't treat him properly when he was arrested and transported to the Nobles County Jail.

"I had several bruises by my eye and my arms," Promvongsa said. "My neck was in serious pain, too. I told them my neck was hurting when we were in the car, but [Gaul] just kept asking questions."

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