Lucas County has hired outside counsel to defend a corrections officer being sued for allegedly violating a Toledo man's civil rights while conducting an improper traffic stop on March 13.
Seth Bunke, the corrections officer, and Lucas County Sheriff James Telb, are named in a lawsuit filed last month in Common Pleas Court on behalf of Elmer Lee, Jr. Mr. Lee is seeking punitive damages from the two defendants in excess of $25,000.
According to the lawsuit, Mr. Bunke "assaulted," "used excessive force [against]," "abducted," and "unlawfully restrained" Mr. Lee. The incident occurred during a traffic stop on McCord Road just after midnight.
Mr. Bunke was wearing his Lucas County sheriff's uniform, but was driving his personal vehicle.
According to his report, Mr. Bunke was on his way from the Lucas County jail when he flagged down the car Mr. Lee was riding in - driven by Rodney Ray - just past McCord and Angola Road. Mr. Bunke suspected the driver was under the influence.
The report said Mr. Bunke notified a Holland police officer of what he was doing and eventually persuaded Mr. Ray and Mr. Lee to drive to a BP gas station at Airport Highway and McCord.
An Ohio Highway Patrol trooper who met the men at the gas station determined Mr. Ray was not driving impaired.
Joanna Baron, Mr. Lee's lawyer, said her client left the car when Mr. Bunke initially approached it and was forced physically by the corrections officer back into the vehicle.
"My client had the right not to be stopped [by Mr. Bunke] because there was no probable cause," Ms. Baron said.
Sheriff Telb is being sued because, according to the lawsuit, Mr. Bunke is his employee and the sheriff is "responsible for [Mr. Bunke's] actions."
John Borell, an assistant Lucas County prosecutor, said outside counsel was hired for Mr. Bunke because "there is a very good possibility that the sheriff's legal position will differ from" the corrections officer's position, and "we can't defend them both."
Mr. Borell said the county was required by law to provide outside counsel for Mr. Bunke. Hired to defend Mr. Bunke was Dennis Lyle, a Toledo attorney.
Mr. Borell said that as a corrections officer, Mr. Bunke has no police powers and no authority to pull over cars, as he is accused. It is likely the county will argue that Mr. Bunke was thus acting on his own accord, and not on behalf of the sheriff's office.
Mr. Lyle said it was too early in the process for him to comment on his client's case.
Mr. Bunke, who joined the sheriff's office Sept. 29, was found in violation of three departmental rules or regulations following an internal investigation - conduct unbecoming an employee, abuse of authority, and any just or reasonable cause. The corrections officer was not charged criminally in connection with the incident.
Sheriff Telb said Mr. Bunke was suspended 10 days without pay, is not permitted to wear his sheriff's office uniform outside of work, and his probationary period was extended from September until next March.
The sheriff said Mr. Bunke voluntarily turned in his personal handgun and his permit to carry a concealed weapon.
He also underwent a psychological evaluation and has continued to come to work, Sheriff Telb said.
Mr. Bunke garnered fame in a biography about rescued prisoner-of-war Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch after his 30-man platoon was chosen to create a diversion and provide backup for a contingent of military Special Forces units to rescue Ms. Lynch in 2003.
"He's got an extensive military background and was on the front lines," Sheriff Telb said yesterday. "There might be some carryover from that, and that's why we're trying to help him a little bit."
Contact Joe Vardon
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