Mother sues sheriff, county

Jackson Potadle

The mother of a Fort Calhoun teenager who was killed in an accident after fleeing a traffic stop in 2017 alleges the sheriff's deputies involved in the high-speed pursuit violated the department's pursuit policy, contributing to her son's death.

Vicki Ahmann filed a wrongful death lawsuit March 25, 2019, against Washington County and Sheriff Mike Robinson in Washington County District Court in the death of her son, Jackson Potadle, 19. She is seeking $1 million in damages.

On Wednesday, Judge John E. Samson heard testimony during a bench trial for the lawsuit.

“We've identified 10 different ways that policy was violated,” attorney Robert Schaefer said during opening arguments.

“This is a tragedy. No one disputes that,” Washington County's defense attorney Thomas Freeman said. “The sad reality is the cause of Potadle's death was his own negligence.”

Freeman argued the county is entitled to sovereign immunity under the due care exemption and therefore is not civilly responsible in Potadle's death.

Potadle lawsuit

An SUV travels past where a fatal accident happened Nov. 10, 2017, on County Road P43 just south of Fort Calhoun. Lengthy skidmarks were still visible on the road two days later.

Potadle died in a high-speed crash Nov. 10, 2017, after he ran from sheriff's deputies in the 2400 block of County Road P43. Deputy Ashley Brammer and Sgt. Jacob Hoffman were preparing to search the vehicle due to the smell of marijuana coming from inside when Potadle took off north at a high rate of speed.

Brammer attempted, but was unable to catch the vehicle. A few moments later, she came upon the crashed car lodged in a grove of trees in the 4600 block of CR P43, just west of U.S. Highway 75.

The pursuit lasted approximately 2 minutes.

Robinson testified the department's pursuit policy, which was modified in the early 2000s, offers guidelines and recommendations on when to pursue and how to pursue. He drafted the document using policies from other departments, specifically Omaha police.

Deputies, he said, are trained annually on the policy. Brammer and Hoffman had attended emergency vehicle training, where the policy is addressed, in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

There are a number of risk factors listed in the pursuit policy that could potentially identify a pursuit as high risk and lead to it being terminated. However, Robinson testified, only one or two risk factors were present out of 12.

Robinson conducted an investigation of the pursuit and determined there were no violations.

“The pursuit was conducted professionally and in a manner we expect,” he said.

The pursuit was also investigated by the Nebraska State Patrol and a grand jury. No charges were filed against either deputy.

Ahmann's attorneys, Robert Schaefer and James Shaefer, argued Hoffman, who followed Brammer in the pursuit, had a ride along that night. Under the policy, pursuing a vehicle with a ride along in the patrol vehicle is a violation.

Hoffman testified he was attempting to find a safe place to drop off the ride along.

The plaintiffs also argued that Brammer was familiar with Potadle and knew where he lived, which was a short distance from the traffic stop, and could have apprehended him there rather than pursue him.

However, Hoffman, who is now an Omaha police officer, said it was less likely that he would have gone home.

“That would be the first place we'd look for him,” he said.

Ahmann testified about her son, the activities they enjoyed together, his involvement in his church and the loss she has felt since his death.

“The loss of a child demolishes you completely,” she said.

Ahmann said she was aware of her son's marijuana use and had often searched his vehicle and room, finding small amounts a few times.

“We had frequent talks about his marijuana use,” she said. “I did not support it.”

Brammer, who recently left the sheriff's office and moved out of state, was not available for the trial. Her video deposition was submitted instead. Samson said he reviewed her testimony as well as body cameras from Brammer and Hoffman and Hoffman's dash cam video.

Samson asked attorneys for both sides to submit written closing arguments by July 20. He will issue a ruling at a later date.

In a statement to the Enterprise, Potadle's family said the purpose of the lawsuit was to initiate change in the Washington County Sheriff's Office's pursuit policy.

“Our hope today was justice for Jackson and a change in the pursuit policy so perhaps in the future a situation like this can be de-escalated,” they said. “Our thoughts are that pursuits should be reserved for violent individuals who are an immediate danger to the public. Jackson is being faulted for making a split decision to run.”

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