Cotati stun-gun case heads to court: Man says police entered his home illegally; officers cite concerns for wife's safety
Nearly a half-million people have seen the video of James Wood's fateful encounter with Cotati police, posted on YouTube and linked to from sites that include the Huffington Post.
It shows the 34-year-old Army reservist being shocked with an electric stun gun in his own home after refusing to open his door to officers responding to a domestic disturbance call.
Police said the action was necessary to ensure the safety of Wood's wife, who was heard sobbing inside the apartment.
But Wood claims it was unjustified and points to his own video as proof that no emergency existed. The recording shows police standing outside a window, "chatting" to the occupants, including the wife, who insists she is OK, according to legal papers.
Wood's lawyer, Ben Adams, will argue in court today that the real reason officers kicked down the door and shot Wood with three high-voltage stun guns was because he was asserting his right to privacy.
Adams will ask Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Peter Ottenweller to throw out an obstruction charge against Wood on grounds that police entered his home illegally.
"The question is simply this: Do we live in a society of laws or a police state?" Adams asked in court papers filed earlier this week.
The video, which went viral shortly after the May 10 incident, has divided viewers who say that it shows police either overstepping their authority or doing their job to protect the public.
It also has figured in discussions over whether to equip officers with body-worn cameras to get a fuller view of street interactions. Cotati police began wearing them after the incident, and other local law enforcement agencies are taking similar steps.
Prosecutors appear to have watched Wood's video in concluding officers acted correctly in forcing their way into his Marsh Way home without a warrant. Their court papers contain verbatim conversations between Wood and the officers before they kicked in his door.
Wood made his video with a cellphone camera when police arrived at his apartment around 4 p.m. Officers were dispatched to a neighbor's report of a loud argument between a man and a woman.
Police peered through cracks in a courtyard fence and saw a man yelling at a woman in a hostile tone. Beer bottles were scattered about and the woman was crying, they said.
Officer Eric Bilcich knocked on the front door and asked the occupants to come out. They refused, appearing at a window instead and yelling, "There's no domestic violence here."
Jennifer Wood, 29, came to the window and told police they couldn't enter without a warrant. Another occupant, James Helton, said he wouldn't open the door "because we don't live in a police state, sir."
"Martial law has not been established in this country," Helton said.
Officer Andrew Lyssand said he heard James Wood yell he was a Sovereign Nation Citizen, but the comment is not heard on the video. Prosecutors said members are hostile to law enforcement and don't believe laws apply to them.
Adams said Wood is not a member of the group.
At one point, police kicked in the door. Three officers entered, stun guns drawn. James Wood can be heard yelling, "You kicked my door down!" and then, "You have no right to be here!"
The officers fired on Wood after one said he lunged at him. Jennifer Wood screamed as her husband fell to the floor.
All three were placed in handcuffs. Jennifer Wood later said she had been arguing with her husband about finances. She said he wouldn't let her open the door for the officers, according to police.
Prosecutors cite "exigent circumstances" as justification for entering without a warrant. They say any delay could have risked danger to a victim.
But Wood's lawyer said the claim is disproven by the video. He questions other factors cited by police, including that Wood was a combat-trained soldier, capable of inflicting violence.
Today's hearing is expected to be attended by veterans advocates, Adams said.
"The court should excise all of this nonsense from its probable cause calculation," Adams wrote. "What we have left once the court does this is a married couple yelling (and only yelling) at each other -- an activity presumptively protected by the First Amendment."