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More lawsuits expected against West Valley City

By Michelle L. Price

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, July 4 2013 11:26 p.m. MDT

Attorneys who filed a wrongful death lawsuit for the parents of a woman killed during an officer-involved shooting say they will bring more cases against West Valley City police as the FBI investigates the department's drug unit and the shooting death last year.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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WEST VALLEY CITY — Attorneys who filed a wrongful death lawsuit for the parents of a woman killed during an officer-involved shooting say they will bring more cases against West Valley City police as the FBI investigates the department's drug unit and the shooting death last year.

Since March, prosecutors have dropped 124 cases investigated by West Valley City drug officers, citing a lack of credible evidence, and city officials announced in April that an internal police review found officers had mishandled evidence and kept souvenirs from drug busts, among other issues.

That probe into the drug unit was sparked by the officer-involved shooting death last November of 21-year-old Danielle Willard, who was unarmed.

In their lawsuit, attorneys for Willard's parents link her death to the issues uncovered in the internal review, alleging that a pattern of misconduct and corruption by West Valley City officers led to the shooting. Shelley Kaufman, one of the family's attorneys, told The Associated Press there are plans to file additional lawsuits against the department on behalf of defendants in some of the dropped cases.

Other Utah attorneys also say they expect more lawsuits to be filed, including cases where people have already been convicted.

"The lawsuit that Danielle Willard's family has filed is really the first salvo that's been lodged," said Kent Hart, executive director of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Police say that on Nov. 2, Willard appeared to have purchased drugs. When officers approached her, she put her car in reverse and the officers fired, the department has said. District Attorney Sim Gill has not yet ruled whether Willard's death was justified.

On June 12, Willard's parents sued the police department and two members of the drug unit, alleging officers shot Willard in the back of the head "assassination style," and calling the officers' actions unjustified and in "reckless disregard of her safety and well-being."

Kaufman said her firm is working on additional lawsuits to represent some of the defendants whose West Valley City cases were dismissed.

The first of those could be filed in the next several weeks, she said.

Kaufman said she was not able to detail how many of defendants her firm might take on, only saying she expects "there will be a wave of cases that come through of people whose rights were violated as a result of misconduct by West Valley City police officers."

Outside of the dismissed cases, Hart said he expects more lawsuits to be filed, particularly by people who've already gone through the legal process and been convicted.

If those people were convicted of crimes investigated by officers on the police drug unit, those people will likely try to get their convictions overturned first and then sue the city for damages, he said.

Those lawsuits, or any potential class-action lawsuit, may not happen until the federal and local investigations are finished. At that point, attorneys will have a better sense of what they're dealing with and the extent of any wrongdoing at the department, Hart said.

"My feeling is that a lot of attorneys are in a holding pattern right now," he said.

The Salt Lake County public defender's office has already received dozens of calls from people seeking to have their convictions overturned.

Attorneys in that office are still trying to figure out how to pursue the cases, said the office's assistant director, Patrick Corum.

Defense attorney Michael Studebaker said the situation with West Valley City is similar to a lawsuit he's involved in over allegations of bogus arrests by the Utah Highway Patrol.

Studebaker represents two defendants in a case against a former trooper accused of wrongfully arresting dozens of people for drunken driving. Nine cases from that trooper have been dismissed or overturned.

Studebaker said that because such a large number of cases have been thrown out in West Valley City, he expects a rash of lawsuits to be filed.

"I think it opens up the door to a lot of litigation that's going to come down," he said.

City officials have said the concerns with the police department were limited to nine officers on the drug unit, who are on administrative leave.

Mayor Mike Winder has also announced additional reviews and oversight boards for police.

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