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‘I’m the boss’: Lawsuit alleges CHP officer choked suspect twice after traffic stop

Hear Samuel LaVigne describe his allegations in CHP interview

Samuel LaVigne, of Placer County, is suing a California Highway Patrol officer, saying the officer choked him twice while he was handcuffed and helpless. CHP investigators look into LaVigne's allegations in an interview recorded on January 4, 2018.
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Samuel LaVigne, of Placer County, is suing a California Highway Patrol officer, saying the officer choked him twice while he was handcuffed and helpless. CHP investigators look into LaVigne's allegations in an interview recorded on January 4, 2018.

Samuel J. LaVigne’s lawsuit against the California Highway Patrol officer who pulled him over in December 2017 doesn’t claim there was no reason for the stop.

After taking breath-alcohol tests at the CHP’s Newcastle office, LaVigne expected the results to show he was “significantly above the legal limit,” according to the suit filed last week in federal court in Sacramento.

What LaVigne is suing over is his claim that he was choked for no reason – twice – by the arresting officer, one time in full view of at least three other CHP officers who made no move to intervene, according to the excessive force and battery suit filed by Sacramento attorney Stewart Katz.

The CHP declined to comment on the pending litigation, but confirmed that the officer being sued, Stephen Johnson, was no longer employed by CHP as of Feb. 14, 2018.

The incident allegedly began the evening of Dec. 15, 2017, when Johnson pulled LaVigne over for an improper stop at a stop sign, then asked him if he had been drinking, the suit says.

LaVigne conceded he had been and, after a field sobriety test, the officer arrested him on suspicion of driving under the influence and took him to the CHP’s Newcastle office, the suit says.

There, LaVigne was administered more tests and left sitting with his hands cuffed behind his back, the suit says.

“While sitting and waiting in an armless, molded, plastic chair after the tests, LaVigne stood up to look for a restroom,” according to the lawsuit. “As LaVigne stood up and took two steps to his left looking down the hallway for a restroom, Johnson told him to sit down.

“As LaVigne turned back to the right, and before he had a chance to sit down, Johnson grabbed LaVigne by the throat with one hand and LaVigne’s shoulder with the other and slammed him back into the chair. Johnson then, while facing LaVigne, used both his hands around LaVigne’s neck to lift him back out of the chair and slam his head against a countertop behind the chair.

“As Johnson held his head against the counter, he used both hands to squeeze his neck. As a result of the strangling, LaVigne’s vision was affected, he could not breathe, and he almost passed out.”

The lawsuit contends that as this was happening Johnson was face to face with him yelling threats in an incident that continued for about 40 seconds. The suit also claims that at least three other CHP officers were present – two of them just a few feet away – but that no one moved to intervene.

Johnson then took LaVigne out to a CHP SUV to transport him to the Placer County Jail, and placed him in the front passenger seat, where the officer locked LaVigne’s legs to the floor beneath the seat, the suit says.

“He then slid the seat all the way forward to the point that LaVigne’s knees were touching the dashboard,” the suit says. “This positioning was intentionally done to maximize LaVigne’s discomfort.

“There was a verbal exchange between LaVigne and Johnson regarding the positioning.”

The “verbal exchange” preceded Johnson becoming angry again, the suit says, with the officer shouting “I’m the boss” before choking LaVigne again.

“On approximately the third time that Johnson went after LaVigne’s neck, Johnson karate-chopped so hard in the center of LaVigne’s throat that LaVigne instantly and involuntarily keeled forward,” according to the suit. “Johnson then put his hand on the back of LaVigne’s head and pushed it down to the center of the seat while he called for backup.

“Johnson wrapped his left arm around LaVigne’s neck in a choke hold and used his other arm to drop elbows on LaVigne’s back and the back of his head. All the while, he continued driving and steering the car with his knees.”

At that point, LaVigne passed out and urinated himself, then woke up with the vehicle stopped near Maple Street and Interstate 80 with other officers who had responded to the call for backup, the suit says.

When officers arrived, they began yelling at him, the suit says, placing him face down on the ground. The suit goes on to say LaVigne was hogtied by tying his leg restraints to his cuffs. Officers began to place him back in Johnson’s SUV, when things got interesting.

“LaVigne protested and pleaded that he not be placed back in the car with Johnson,” the suit says.

And that is when LaVigne’s brother-in-law, a Placer County sheriff’s sergeant “instantly recognized his voice and informed others present of their relationship, which seemed to defuse the situation slightly,” the suit says.

“LaVigne’s handcuffs were finally loosened and a different officer (not Johnson) transported him to the jail,” according to the suit.

LaVigne, a general contractor, suffered injuries that included blunt trauma, neck injuries including a thyroid cartilage fracture, chest pain when breathing and dizziness, the suit said. He also incurred “significant medical expenses.”

LaVigne reported the incident to the CHP afterward, and was interrogated by “multiple CHP investigators.”

As for the DUI arrest, nothing ever came of it.

“LaVigne was never charged with a crime in connection with his arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol despite overwhelming evidence of his guilt,” according to the suit, which adds that LaVigne believes that is because Johnson was not willing to cooperate with prosecutors.

Sam Stanton has worked for The Bee since 1991 and has covered a variety of issues, including politics, criminal justice and breaking news.