A jury unanimously ruled on Sept. 4 in Flathead County District Court that the City of Kalispell is not liable for the actions of two police officers who entered a home in January 2016 and shot a U.S. Army veteran who lived there.
The jury’s eight men and four women concluded that the city was not negligent and that officers had justification for entering the home of Ryan Pengelly, 35, without a warrant. The two officers involved in the shooting — Sergeant Chad Zimmerman and Officer Eric Brinton — were present throughout the trial and were greeted with hugs from their attorneys and a number of other law enforcement officials present in the courtroom after the verdict was read.
“These were exceptional officers and they deserved this verdict,” Natasha Jones, the city’s lead attorney, said after the verdict was read. “These are tough calls and these are demonstrably nice, caring, professional law enforcement officers … I think that’s what won the case, is that they’re good people.”
Pengelly filed suit in October 2018, more than two-and-a-half years after the shooting, alleging that Zimmerman and Brinton acted negligently and outside the confines of the Montana Constitution when they entered the Pengelly home on Looking Glass Avenue on the afternoon of Jan. 12, 2016. The officers were there to detain Bonnie Pengelly, Ryan’s mother, and bring her to the hospital for a mental health evaluation, two days after she made statements to a co-worker indicating she intended to harm herself and Ryan’s live-in girlfriend.
Ryan Pengelly, who worked late nights for a taxi company at the time of the shooting, was asleep in his bedroom when the officers began to scuffle with Bonnie inside the home, at which time he grabbed a loaded assault rifle next to his bed. Pengelly walked into the hallway with the weapon and was shot after the officers said he ignored a command to put the gun down.
The five-day trial in front of Judge Robert Allison boiled down to a narrow set of questions as the jury entered deliberations around 2 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 4. They arrived at their verdict less than two hours later.
During their presentation of the case, Pengelly’s attorneys argued that the shooting would not have happened were it not for an overzealous law enforcement response to a two-day-old threat made by Bonnie Pengelly, who had a history of threatening suicide. In his closing argument, lead attorney Paul Leisher argued that officers lacked a warrant or the exigent circumstances necessary to chase Bonnie into the home when she fled Brinton after initially talking with him on the porch. Pengelly’s attorneys also claimed that the officers’ failure to announce themselves as police led to Pengelly’s split-second decision to arm himself.
“All I heard was screaming in the house,” Pengelly testified. “If I would have known it was a police officer, I would have put (the gun) down.”
The city’s representatives, meanwhile, countered that Bonnie Pengelly did represent a danger to herself and others, highlighting the fact that she had indicated there were weapons in the house she could access. Ryan himself agreed his mother was a threat and that she had been deteriorating mentally in the months leading up to the shooting.
“This is crystal clear,” Jones said in her closing argument. “When you have an individual who is a ticking time bomb, of course you go see her. Of course she is a threat to herself and others.”
Jones further argued that the officers did what they were trained to do in difficult, rapidly evolving circumstances, adding that it was unreasonable to expect Brinton and Zimmerman to identify themselves at the same time they were wrestling with Bonnie and Ryan was approaching them with a gun.
A number of law enforcement officials testified during the trial, including retired Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir, who said his review of the case found the officers acted reasonably at every step of the investigation and confrontation. Pengelly’s attorneys fought back at those assertions, hammering at the idea that entering the Pengelly home at the moment they did constituted an “emergency.” Leisher compared the exigent circumstances necessary to do so to a firefighter entering a home that was on fire. There was no such urgency in his case, he said. Jones countered that “Bonnie was the fire.”
Pengelly was seeking financial compensation for physical and mental anguish, and any future medical bills. The shooting left him with wounds in his face, leg and abdomen. He said he will face lifelong dietary restrictions as a result of injuries to his pancreas.
Leisher, in the case’s last word, urged jurors to send a message to the city and the Kalispell Police Department who, he said, have expressed no regret over what happened.
“If they refuse to evaluate and refuse to change, this isn’t the last time there’s going to be one of these cases,” Leisher said. “This is going to happen again.”
The jury disagreed.