Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse is no longer a defendant in a $5 million civil rights complaint filed late last year, now that a judge, citing procedural grounds, has dismissed claims against him.
The complaint, which stems from a high-speed car chase near Capitol Hill that led to the death of a Maryland woman on Christmas Eve 2005, was the first lawsuit brought against Morse after he took over the Capitol Police this past fall.
Morse and several “John Doe” Capitol Police officers along with former Metropolitan Police Department Chief Charles Ramsey, MPD officers and the Prince George’s County Police Department originally were named in the complaint filed by lawyers for the estate of Jewell West, the deceased woman, and District resident Alyce Summers. The two women were passengers in the car being chased by police.
On July 2, U.S. District Judge John Bates dismissed claims against Morse because Morse was never served with a summons and complaint in accordance with federal rules of civil procedure. While the law stipulates that a judge may dismiss the complaint if a defendant isn’t served within 120 days of the case filing, Bates gave the plaintiffs more than six months to serve Morse before dismissing the case against him.
In June, Bates granted a motion by lawyers for the Prince George’s County officers removing them from the case, finding they played no part in the crash.
Last week, Jeanett Henry, the lawyer representing Summers and the West estate, gave “no comment” as to why Morse was never served with the complaint and a summons. She did say that MPD and the yet-to-be named Capitol Police officers “are the only ones in the case right now.”
If specific Capitol officers are eventually named, they would be defended by lawyers from the Office of the U.S. Attorney.
“Theoretically it may be their intent to bring a case against these unknown officers when they find out who they are and if there are such people,” said Rudolph Contreras, chief of the civil division for the U.S. attorney. “But there’s really no one in the case now.”
In their original complaint, lawyers for West, who was 18 at the time of her death, and Summers, who was 17 when the incident occurred, claimed that police officers engaged in a “reckless” high-speed pursuit across the District “in total disregard of the safety” of West and Summers, two unwitting passengers in a car driven by a 23-year-old carjacker fleeing police.
According to the complaint, West and Summers accepted a ride from the driver of a 2003 BMW Z4 in Northwest Washington without realizing that about a half-hour earlier the man had stolen the car during an armed carjacking in Hyattsville, Md.
The claim states that the ensuing car chase involved members of the MPD and Capitol Police and speeds in excess of 80 miles per hour through residential neighborhoods.
Lawyers for MPD have denied any involvement in the car chase and have filed a motion to dismiss the case against Ramsey.
According to news reports from the incident, the crash occurred at about 1:20 a.m., shortly after Capitol Police began pursuing the BMW for traveling the wrong direction on Washington Avenue Southwest.
The car hit a light pole and slammed into the back of a Dodge pickup truck stopped at a red light in the 1700 block of Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast.
The 23-year-old carjacker was killed in the crash along with West, who was sitting on Summers’ lap in the two-seat car throughout the chase. Summers sustained multiple non-life-threatening injuries and was transported to Washington Hospital Center.