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SD Supreme Court: Officer used excessive force against 'non-resisting' teen girl

Rapid City Police Department
Rapid City Police Department

The South Dakota Supreme Court unanimously agrees that a Rapid City police officer used excessive force against a 16-year-old girl.

Officer Brandon Bassett "grabbed and pulled a non-threatening, nonfleeing, and non-resisting female teenager to the ground in a dark room, without warning," the justices wrote in their Thursday opinion.

Bassett accused the girl of kicking him after he took her to the ground, and a lower-court judge found her guilty of simple assault.

The justices overturned her conviction and said a judge must consider whether her actions were self-defense since she was the victim of excessive force.

"She was the victim here and the conduct of the officer really was egregious," said defense lawyer Joanna Lawler. "So we appealed because we thought that what had happened to her was wrong and it could affect what's on her juvenile record — which doesn't carry with her into adulthood in this kind of case. So there are some practical implications but there's also just the issue of feeling like justice was done."

The Rapid City Police Department did not immediately respond to questions about the incident.

The incident began after the girl texted her mother about a drive-by shooting at their apartment on Nov. 16, 2019.

The mother called 911 and Bassett and another officer arrived at the apartment at 2:14 a.m.

The girl told Bassett her text was a prank, that there was really no drive-by shooting. She let the officers into the apartment — which was only occupied by children, no adults — because the officers wanted to make sure everyone was safe.

Bassett continued to question the girl about whether the shooting was real or a false report. She continued to say it was a prank and used profanity during their interaction.

Bassett eventually decided to handcuff the girl, but body camera footage shows he did not warn her.

The girl "was an unarmed, barefooted, teenage girl of average stature who made no verbal threats of violence or attempts to assault Officer Bassett before he grabbed her arm without warning," the justices wrote. "On the other hand, Officer Bassett was an armed, 240-pound adult male who, without warning, pulled (the girl) down on to a mattress in a pitch-dark room."

You're “going to learn a lesson today," Bassett told the girl as he walked her to his patrol car.

Pennington County prosecutors charged the girl with simple assault after Bassett said she kicked him on the mattress.

Bassett testified that he decided to detain and handcuff her “to maintain control over the scene of a possible shooting" because she was “screaming” and “wasn’t listening to commands.” The Supreme Court opinion does not state whether the shooting actually took place.

In the lower-court ruling, Judge Matt Brown decided Bassett's force was not excessive, and found the girl guilty of simple assault. He did not give her any jail time or probation.

The Supreme Court justices said Brown was wrong, that Bassett had no reason to use such force.

"We acknowledge that officers often enter chaotic situations that can escalate to violence without notice; however, the video capturing this interaction reveals this was not one of those situations," they wrote.

The justices said the girl was not under arrest, making verbal threats, fleeing, resisting, or hurting Basset. They noted Bassett had already done a safety sweep so there was no ongoing risk from the shooting. Plus, the girl was detained for allegedly obstructing an investigation — a misdemeanor — not the shooting itself.

"The only order she received was to 'shut up,' but then Officer Bassett provided her no opportunity to comply before he employed force," the justices wrote.

The justices overturned the girl's conviction and said Brown must reevaluate the girl's self-defense claim in light of Bassett's use of excessive force.

Lawler said the judge will have to decide if the girl's actions were an appropriate response to Bassett's force.

"We think that anything she did was just a reaction to being tackled without notice when she wasn't under arrest or doing anything wrong," Lawler said.

Lawler said she, the girl and her family will consider asking the police department and Law Enforcement Officers Standards and Training Commission to review Bassett's use of force.