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Family can sue SWAT, judge says

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A federal judge said it will be up to a jury to decide if two members of the Utah County SWAT team violated a Springville family's constitutional rights and used excessive force during the 2005 raid of a neighboring suspected drug house.

During a hearing Thursday, U.S. District Judge Dee Benson dismissed claims against Utah County but found two of the SWAT officers could be taken to trial on claims of constitutional violations and use of excessive force.

The Chidester family filed a federal suit after two SWAT officers threw a mother, father and their adult son to the ground and broke down a door to their home.

Peter Stirba, attorney for Utah County, said officers knew there was a methamphetamine dealing operation going on in the house next to the Chidesters. They also knew some people in the meth house could be armed, so SWAT members obtained a no-knock warrant. Having cased the area for several hours on the night of May 25, three groups of SWAT members prepared for the raid.

Stirba said confusion was created when SWAT flash-bang grenades went off 30 seconds early, forcing the teams to move in unprepared. While moving toward the home, two SWAT officers later reported seeing two suspicious individuals near the Chidester home. At the same time, son Larry Chidester had heard the grenades and went outside, thinking there might have been a car accident.

Larry Chidester said he was told by an officer to get on the ground and then tackled, knocking the wind out of him. His face was ground into the gravel causing lacerations and breaking his nose. He was later taken to a hospital.

A second officer said he was looking for a suspicious person when he kicked in a side door to the Chidester home. He confronted mother Emily Chidester, who was thrown to the kitchen floor and a gun was put to her head. The same officer moved on to the bedroom where Lawrence Chidester was putting on his pants. Ripping the back off his shirt, the officer threw Lawrence Chidester to the ground.

The Chidester residence was not the subject of the search warrant.

In court, Stirba said the two officers were acting under confusing conditions created by the grenades and were pursuing two unidentified people. Because of the dangerous circumstances, Stirba argued the officers were protected under governmental immunity and had a right to "control the situation."

Attorney Stephen Spencer said SWAT members were "high on adrenaline" at the time and were not in control. Later, the officers fabricated the story about the two suspicious persons near the Chidester home to cover their mistakes, he said.

Benson said establishing the fact of the two unknown persons was key in determining if the officers acted lawfully, but because there were no corroborating witnesses other than the two officers, it was a question better put to a jury to determine if the officers were telling the truth or lying.

The family also claimed that Utah County failed to adequately train SWAT members in order to prevent such situations. Benson said Spencer failed to bring adequate evidence that the county's policies were lacking.

Benson suggested that given the facts of the case, which are viewed in a light most favorable toward the Chidesters, this could be a case the county might want to settle.

E-mail: gfattah@desnews.com