South Dakota's Supreme Court justices issued a unanimous opinion Thursday that a Rapid City police officer used excessive force during a November 2019 altercation with a 16-year-old female.
The officer involved, Brandon Bassett, was hired by the Rapid City Police Department in 2017, RCPD Public Information Officer Brendyn Medina confirmed with the Journal on Friday. Bassett left the department in 2020 "to pursue a different career," Medina said, but was re-hired on a part-time basis in 2021.
During the early morning hours of Nov. 16, 2019, Bassett and another officer were dispatched to an apartment after the 16-year-old sent several text messages to her mother claiming the apartment was a "target of a drive-by shooting by another juvenile," court records show.
The apartment, court records show, was only occupied at the time by juveniles. When Bassett arrived at the scene, the 16-year-old told him the text messages to her mother were a prank.
The lights of the apartment were not turned on at the time of contact. Bassett asked the juvenile if officers could enter the home to "confirm that everyone was safe and to investigate whether a shooting had occurred." The female agreed, court records show.
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Bassett continued to question the girl in the dark living room about the text messages, while the other officer performed a search of the apartment with his flashlight. The other officer located the girl's boyfriend and a younger brother.
The officer escorted the boyfriend outdoors while Bassett continued questioning the girl in the living room. The girl called her mother and told her that the text messages were pranks.
According to court documents, the girl began using profanity and laughing. Because of the girl's behavior, Bassett decided to place her in handcuffs.
"Without warning of his intentions, he grabbed [the girl] by the arm. She started pulling away and thrashing her body, screaming, 'leave me alone, leave me alone,'" court documents read. "Officer Bassett then pulled her down onto a mattress of the floor. The fall to the mattress allegedly broke [the girl's] glasses. He was able to put his knee into or over [the girl's] back and place handcuffs on her. Officer Bassett testified that, while he was handcuffing her, [the girl] kicked him one time in the right leg."
The other officer returned to the dark apartment and turned the lights on. Partially obscured body cam video from the other officer does not show the physical interaction between Bassett and the girl, court documents read.
Bassett then escorted the girl to a patrol car. The girl was barefoot, but "continued to thrash her body and allegedly attempted to kick Officer Bassett a second time during the walk," the documents contend.
Bassett placed the girl in the patrol car and told her she was "going to learn a lesson today." The girl was transported to the juvenile service center.
Pennington County prosecutors filed a juvenile delinquency petition and charged her with simple assault on a law enforcement officer and disorderly conduct.
At a circuit court hearing, the girl's attorney claimed Bassett used excessive force and that the girl's actions were in self-defense. The judge disagreed and found the girl guilty of the simple assault charge but dropped the disorderly conduct charge. The judge declared the girl a delinquent child, but did not order any jail time or probation.
The girl's attorney appealed the lower-court decision and filed motion briefs with the state Supreme Court in May. The appeal raised two issues — whether the circuit court erred by finding that Bassett did not use excessive force, and whether the circuit court erred by rejecting the juvenile's self-defense claim.
In their opinion issued Thursday, the Supreme Court justices said the lower-court was wrong about Barrett's use of force, but issued no finding on the juvenile's self-defense claim, remanding that portion back to the circuit court.
"We do acknowledge that [the girl's] comments and attitude were disrespectful. When added to the everyday stress and danger encountered by a law enforcement officer, such conduct can be frustrating. Yet '[t]he use of any force by officers simply because a suspect is argumentative, contentious, or vituperative' is not to be condoned," the justices wrote in their opinion.
"In this particular situation, [the girl's] comments did not warrant the amount of force Officer Bassett deployed."
The justices also said the girl was not under arrest at the time when Bassett grabbed her arm, pulled her to the mattress and placed her in handcuffs.
"Thus, Officer Bassett's decision to use force cannot be justified on a claim that [the girl] was 'actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight,'" the justices wrote.
Medina told the Journal on Friday that RCPD will respect the Supreme Court's decision.
"As an agency we want to comply with their determination in regards to use of force; we regularly review our policy and tactics to ensure they are in line with recent court decisions and we will do so with this case as well," Medina said. "We will continue to monitor this case as it navigates through the criminal justice system. As this case involves a juvenile and is still an active case, further inquires will need to be sent to the State’s Attorney’s Office."
Since the Supreme Court overturned the girl's conviction based on Bassett's excessive force, the circuit court will still have to decide on the girl's claim of self-defense.
Contact Nathan Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org.