Ralph Ennis

Ralph Ennis

A $6 million federal lawsuit claims that during a traffic stop two Warren County Sheriff’s Office deputies used excessive force against a man who died days later.

Ian R. Ennis, the son and administrator of the estate of the late Ralph C. Ennis, filed a civil lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia in August. The plaintiff names Deputies Tyler Poe and Zachary Fadley as defendants.

Attorneys Seth Carroll and Susan Pierce represent the plaintiff and filed the lawsuit on Ennis’ behalf on Aug. 8.

Attorney Carlene Johnson represents Poe. Alexander Francuzenko represents Fadley. In separate response filings to the lawsuit, Poe and Fadley deny any allegations of misconduct and have asked that the lawsuit be dismissed. Poe’s attorney filed a memorandum in the court on Friday to further support his client’s request to dismiss the case.

Ralph Ennis, 77, died on April 15 in the care of Blue Ridge Hospice, 13 days after sustaining a head injury during an April 2 traffic stop in Warren County. In August, a state medical examiner in Manassas determined that Ralph Ennis died from natural causes. But the plaintiff claims the deputies’ actions during the traffic stop directly caused his father’s death.

The two-count complaint accuses the deputies of using excessive force in violation of Ralph Ennis’ Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure.

“Defendants unreasonably used excessive force against Mr. Ennis when they effected their arrest by slamming the elderly man face first into his vehicle and then tackling him (to) the ground after he was already restrained, causing a traumatic and ultimately fatal brain injury,” the complaint states. “No objectively reasonable law enforcement officer would have believed that the elderly and visibly confused Mr. Ennis posed any threat or significant risk of harm to himself or any other person. No objectively reasonable law enforcement officer would believe that the level of force used by the Defendants was necessary to subdue an elderly and visibly confused man during a routine traffic stop.”

The second count accuses the deputies of battery leading to Ralph Ennis’ wrongful death in violation of Virginia law.

“At all relevant times, both Defendants had a duty to use only the amount of force necessary in subduing Mr. Ennis,” the complaint states. “Defendants’ excessive physical force against Ralph Ennis was utilized without proper verbal warning and was not justified in any way.

“The extensive injuries suffered by Mr. Ennis demonstrate the excessive force used to subdue a person who was complying with verbal commands, appeared elderly and confused, and posed no immediate threat to others,” the complaint states.

Ralph Ennis traveling southbound on Winchester Road passed Warren County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Christopher Pontious, who was running stationary radar, at approximately 1:20 a.m. on April 2, the complaint states. Pontious reported Ennis traveling 63 mph in a 55 mph zone. Pontious also reported Ennis’ vehicle was swaying from side to side in its lane and had a problem with a tail light.

Pontious pursued Ennis and activated the patrol vehicle’s blue lights to initiate a routine traffic stop. Ennis slowed his vehicle to around 45 mph but continued traveling south on Winchester Road toward Front Royal without pulling over, the complaint states. Pontious called in on his radio to report that he was trying to stop the vehicle, which had slowed down, but was continuing to travel toward Front Royal. Pontious activated his vehicle siren after Ennis passed several chances to pull over. Ennis then slowed to approximately 35 mph.

The lawsuit cites events recorded by Pontious’ body camera.

Pontious activated his body camera while following Ennis. Shortly after Pontious activated the siren, Ennis turned his vehicle into the Royal Farms gas station parking lot at 260 Crooked Run Road, through to the 7-Eleven lot and pulled into a parking space. Pontious pulled up behind Ennis’ vehicle, blocking it in. The deputy turned off the siren but left the blue lights flashing. Pontious exited his vehicle and began commanding for Mr. Ennis to “step out of the car,” the complaint states.

Ennis started to exit the vehicle in an attempt to comply with Pontious’ command.

“However, (Ennis) had only slightly opened his driver side door when Canine Officer Sergeant (J.) Gregory shouted a conflicting command of ‘Driver stay in the car! Follow our commands!’ and notified Mr. Ennis of the presence of a canine officer, adding that ‘if you do not follow our commands, you will get bit!’” the complaint states. “At this point, Mr. Ennis started to close his door.

“Another officer on the scene then commanded for Mr. Ennis to ‘Get out of the car!’ and ‘Get your hands up!’” the complaint goes on to state. “At this point Mr. Ennis slowly opened his driver side door. (Pontious) then commanded for Mr. Ennis to “step out of the car!”

Ennis stepped out of his vehicle appearing “visibly confused and disoriented,” the complaint states.

“Deputy Pontious ordered Mr. Ennis to ‘face away from me,’ ‘face 7-11,’ and ‘to turn around!’ while pointing behind Mr. Ennis,” the complaint states.

Ennis, who appeared confused by, or did not hear, the multiple and sometimes conflicting commands, complied and walked toward the rear of his vehicle and Pontious, keys in his right hand, according to the complaint. Pontious then ordered Ennis to drop his keys. The complaint states Ennis turned around to face Pontious and appeared in the video to mouth the word “what?”

“At this time, Defendant Poe quickly rushed Mr. Ennis from behind, and without announcing his presence or giving Mr. Ennis any verbal command, violently grabbed Mr. Ennis and slammed Mr. Ennis’ face and body into the rear of Mr. Ennis’ truck,” the complaint states. “Mr. Ennis screamed out in a panic, ‘Wait a minute!’ as the force of Defendant Poe violently slamming him into the vehicle caused Mr. Ennis’ baseball cap to fly off his head.”

The Warren County Sheriff’s Office issued a media release in late April on the incident that stated that Ennis failed to comply with lawful orders to stop, resulting in a deputy approaching Ennis from behind, and grabbing his arms in an attempt to control Ennis and place him under arrest. The deputy continued to give him commands to stop resisting, drop the keys and place his hand behind his back as Mr. Ennis was escorted several feet away to the rear of his pickup truck, according to the media release.

The complaint states that Pontious’ body camera footage shows Ennis was “visibly confused and attempting to comply with all commands when Defendant Poe gave no verbal command or warning and slammed, not ‘escorted,’ Mr. Ennis into the rear of his vehicle, causing significant injuries.”

“As Defendant Poe violently pressed Mr. Ennis against the rear of his vehicle, Defendant Fadley immediately rushed in from the side, and without announcing his presence or giving any verbal command, violently pushed and tackled Mr. Ennis and Defendant Poe to the pavement behind the vehicle,” the complaint states. “As Mr. Ennis was pushed and tackled towards the pavement, his legs were caught on his vehicle’s protruding tow hitch as he tumbled sideways with Officer Fadley’s entire body weight on top of him.

“Defendant Fadley issued his first verbal command — “Get on the ground!” — as Mr. Ennis’ head slams into the pavement,” the complaint goes on to state. “While Defendants handcuffed Mr. Ennis on the ground, Mr. Ennis can be heard on Deputy Pontious’ body camera footage frantically pleading for help and crying out in extreme pain.”

Front Royal Police Detective Corp. R.D. Lowery arrived at the scene in time to see the defendants’ encounter with Ralph Ennis, according to the complaint. Lowery, while farther away from Ennis than the defendants, described in his report that Ennis appeared “elderly and confused.” According to the complaint, Lowery states in his report: “(Poe) slammed the male into the camper top face first. I observed the male spit something out on the pavement just below his body. Another Deputy (Fadley) came from the side of the male while (Poe) had his hands behind his back. (Ralph Ennis) was pushed over but his legs caught the hitch on the back of the truck.”

The complaint states that, as Lowery left the scene, his body camera footage captured him saying “that was fking unjust and fing un-fing called for” and “Jesus Christ, oh that’s going to be…” before the video cuts out.

“Corporal Lowery’s subjective impression of the situation clearly demonstrates he believed that there was an excessive use of force against Mr. Ennis,” the complaint states.

Deputies handcuffed and then searched Ennis. Emergency medical services workers came to the scene to tend to Ennis’ injuries. Officers found no weapons on Ennis, the complaint states.

“There is no factual basis within the materials to indicate that Mr. Ennis gave any of the officers reason to believe he was armed,” the complaint states. “Mr. Ennis did not act in a threatening manner in any way.

“On the contrary, Mr. Ennis at all times presented as an elderly man who appeared confused and disoriented, but attempting to comply with various commands in a disconcerting environment,” the complaint continues. “Mr. Ennis was completely sober at the time of the incident and the officer-issued breathalyzer test returned a result of 0.000.”

Emergency medical services workers took Ennis to Warren Memorial Hospital for treatment at approximately 2:15 a.m. after he appeared to suffer from significant head trauma.

Hospital staff reported that Ennis appeared confused, could not provide his son’s name nor could he recall the altercation, the complaint states.

Staff diagnosed Ennis with a traumatic brain injury caused by the fall, specifically a bleed in his brain known as a subarachnoid hemorrhage in the left parietal and occipital lobes, according to the complaint. EMS workers transferred Ennis to Winchester Medical Center due to the severity of his trauma and he arrived at the hospital at approximately 6:30 a.m. Staff at the Winchester hospital diagnosed Ennis with terminal intracerebral hemorrhage. Ennis’ health continued to decline at the Winchester hospital and his family decided to change his level of care to comfort or palliative care. Ennis then was transferred to Blue Ridge Hospice on April 14 for end-of-life care.

– Contact Alex Bridges at abridges@nvdaily.com

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