Michigan Homeowner Sues Over Fire Scene Tasing

A homeowner who was tased by police after he ducked underneath yellow fire line tape during a house fire is now suing the city and the police officer who tased him.

Robert W. Burt Jr. claims that Grandville police used excessive force and violated his Constitutional Rights at the scene of a house fire at Burt’s residence on June 2, 2014.

Burt and his wife, Rebecca, operate pet rescue/foster care for cats and dogs. The fire began about 9:00 pm, and the Grandville Fire Department responded. Some time after midnight, Burt claims he went looking for missing cats in the woods adjoining his property. As explained in the complaint:

  • That just after 0200 hours on June 3, 2014, Plaintiff Burt was looking for missing cats in the wood-line on the west side of Plaintiffs’ yard. While Plaintiff was in the wooded area, Defendant [Police Sergeant Kenneth] Howland strung up yellow police tape along the west side of Plaintiffs’ yard boarding the wood-line in effect blocking Plaintiff’s re-entry to his yard.
  • That as Plaintiff Burt re-entered the improved lawn area of his yard, he had to lift and go under the yellow plastic tape. At that time, Plaintiff Burt was confronted by Defendant Howland who ordered Plaintiff Burt to “stay behind the tape.”
  • That Plaintiff Burt advised Defendant Howland that he (Plaintiff) was the owner of the property and that he had every right to be in his yard and that Defendant Howland had no authority to keep him (Plaintiff) off his property.
  • That Plaintiff Burt then turned and walked away from Defendant Howland, walking along the west edge of his lot.
  • That when confronted by Defendant Howland, Plaintiff Bmt was not attempting to enter the burning residence nor interfering with firefighters (who were not present on the west side of the residence).
  • That Defendant Howland told Plaintiff Burt he was under arrest, and as Plaintiff continued to walk away from Defendant, Defendant Howland said, “Stop or I’ll tase you.” Defendant Howland later reported ” … [he] pulled the taser from its holster aimed at the center of Burt’s back and discharged it. Burt was hit by the unit and dropped to the ground … Burt tried to get up by pushing himself up. A second shock was sent… Burt went back to the ground.”
  • That at all times, Plaintiff Burt was nonthreatening and posed no physical threat to Defendant Howland or any other officers or individuals.
  • That Plaintiff Burt had a legal right to “resist” an illegal arrest, People v Moreno, 491 Mich 38 (2012).
  • That Defendant Howland along with Grandville Firefighter Kevin Newman and Grandville Police Officer Farrant ultimately handcuffed and placed Plaintiff Burt under arrest.

The complaint was originally filed in Kent County Circuit Court, but removed to US District Court for the Western District of Michigan last week. It includes allegations of civil rights violations, gross negligence, assault/battery, and that the city failed to properly train Sergeant Howland.

Here is a copy of the complaint: Burt v Grandville

BTW: This is the first complaint I recall that includes fire scene photos!!!!

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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