Crime & Courts

Former sheriff’s deputy loses license over bad traffic stops, searches

A former deputy sheriff in Sedgwick County who was the subject of a 2013 excessive force lawsuit has lost his law enforcement certification for conducting bad traffic stops and searches.

A state board revoked Joel Sutherland’s certification last month, citing over 30 bad traffic stops or searches. His sheriff’s job ended in 2015, but his license wasn’t revoked until after federal prosecutors opted not to file charges amid an FBI investigation, Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter said.

Dash camera video showed Sutherland pulled over drivers for false reasons and lied in written reports, according to a May 13 order by the Kansas Commission on Peace Officers’ Standards and Training.

Investigators concluded that in the first six months of 2015, he “engaged in a pattern of conducting car stops on vehicles for violations that did not exist, that he then continued the ‘bad’ stops into searches that were not lawful and that he demonstrated a pattern of ignorance regarding state law.”

Attempts to reach Sutherland for comment were unsuccessful.

The sheriff’s office opened an investigation into Sutherland in June 2015 after two supervisors questioned the probable cause of a May 2015 traffic stop while reviewing the case for criminal charges, Easter said.

Investigators then reviewed 426 videos from every stop or search Sutherland made from January, when he was transferred to patrol, until June, when he was transferred off patrol while under investigation. They identified 33 cases to investigate, Easter said.

That July, the sheriff’s office turned over the case to the Federal Bureau of Investigation because of potential violations of federal statutes on civil rights, Easter said. In August, Sutherland’s employment with the sheriff’s office ended. The sheriff informed the state commission that he left while under internal and criminal investigation.

Citing personnel records, Easter would not say how Sutherland’s employment ended. He was a law enforcement officer from 2011 to 2015 after spending over 10 years as a detention deputy at the Sedgwick County jail.

Over two years later, in December 2017, the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office told the sheriff that they would not prosecute Sutherland. Easter said the federal officials did not consider the case to be strong enough.

An FBI spokesman referred questions on the potential criminal case to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, where a spokesman said he could neither confirm nor deny a federal investigation.

With the criminal investigation over, the case went to the Kansas Commission on Peace Officers’ Standards and Training.

“We handed over all the information we had to CPOST,” Easter said. “That was the entire criminal investigation, videos and everything. And that’s an independent review that they do. We had concerns that the traffic stops that were performed were possibly unlawful, and possibly some unlawful searches.”

The revocation order states that a commission investigator met with Sutherland in November 2018.

“(Sutherland) agreed that the evidence showed that he made traffic stops without probable case and that his written reports were not accurate,” the order states. “However, he claimed that none of this was done ‘on purpose.’”

In revoking Sutherland’s certification to be a law enforcement officer, the commission said he engaged in unprofessional conduct and lacked “good moral character sufficient to warrant the public trust.” It said the number of bad stops in a short period demonstrated “intentional conduct.”

Three years before the sheriff’s office investigated Sutherland, he was the subject of an excessive force and unlawful arrest lawsuit. He had been accused of pulling over a pickup with no probable cause and later beating the drunken driver.

The county ultimately settled a civil lawsuit for $75,000, though the government admitted no wrongdoing in the case.

The DUI charge against the driver was dismissed after a defense attorney used Sutherland’s dash camera video to show the driver flipped on his turn signal 190 feet in advance, or nearly double what the law requires.

Easter said that after the 2012 incident, law enforcement investigators did not find that Sutherland had engaged in a pattern of unlawful stops. He was later transferred off patrol, but returned to patrol in January 2015.

Sutherland has not been a law enforcement officer since leaving the sheriff’s office that summer.

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