Family members of Tommy Le, the unarmed 20-year-old who was fatally shot by a King County sheriff's deputy last summer, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against county officials on Tuesday.
Le’s family seeks more than $75,000 in compensatory damages for the death of Tommy Le, which they allege was caused by negligence on the part of Sheriff’s Deputy Caesar Molina and the failure of the King County Sheriff’s Office to adequately train officers in de-escalation techniques. The lawsuit also names as defendants former King County Sheriff John Urquhart and King County Executive Dow Constantine.
In addition, the complaint alleges that Le’s Asian heritage played a role in his death, claiming Molina engaged in “racially selective law enforcement." Le was Vietnamese American.
"Would a police officer have shot a white kid in Magnolia under these circumstances? Probably not,” said attorney Jeffrey Campiche at a press conference announcing the lawsuit. "We don’t want to say it, but it is true."
An autopsy report shows that Molina shot Le three times on June 14, with two bullets entering him through the back. Le died later that day at Harborview Medical Center. The events leading up to those fatal shots have been subject to dispute.
King County sheriff’s deputies responded to a late night 911 call from a witness who said Le threatened neighbors with a sharp object, and that it might be a knife. When two deputies arrived on the scene, a homeowner told them he fired a warning shot to stop Le from moving towards him, but it did not work. He told police that he went back into his home. Le then stabbed at his door with an object, saying he was “The Creator,” the homeowner alleged. As deputies questioned witnesses, one of them pointed out Le nearby. Both officers used their Tasers on Le to no avail. Then Molina fired the three shots at Le that would lead to his eventual death.
In the hours after the shooting, the King County Sheriff’s Office issued a press release saying that Le had attacked a homeowner with “a knife or some sort of sharp object in his hand.” Several media outlets reported as a fact that Le brandished a knife when he died. But more than a week later, the sheriff’s office issued another statement stating officers only recovered a pen from Le after a report by Seattle Weekly. Le’s family says that the sheriff’s office also told them privately that Le carried a pen.
The complaint states that the Sheriff’s Office's initial statement, as well as the meeting in which deputies told family members that Le was holding a knife when he died, constituted “intentional” or “reckless” behavior that went "beyond all possible bounds of decency and should be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.”
A spokesperson for the King County Sheriff’s Office deferred questions about the lawsuit to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. A spokesperson for the prosecutor’s office declined to comment.
Le's family filed a claim, the first step towards a lawsuit, back in September. Since then, attorney Campiche told reporters, they haven't heard anything from the county.
Le’s death came amid a spate of high profile police shootings in the region. The same month, Seattle police officers fatally shot Charleena Lyles, a pregnant mother of four, and Kent officers killed Giovonn Joseph-McDade, a Green River College student.
In October, King County Executive Constantine ordered an inquest into the death of Le, the formal process that the county uses to determine the facts of fatal police shootings. Inquests do not determine guilt or innocence, but are used by prosecutors to determine whether to press charges against officers who use deadly force.
But recent scrutiny over the process, including from Le's family, led Constantine to put all inquests on halt as county officials study how the process can be improved.