Michigan teen's family files federal lawsuit over fatal traffic-stop shooting

Story highlights

  • Deven Guilford was shot seven times by a Michigan sheriff's sergeant in a roadside altercation in February
  • Guilford, 17, was pulled over for flashing his high beams at Sgt. Jonathan Frost, according to reports
  • His family, saying Guilford should never have been pulled over to begin with, has filed a federal complaint

(CNN)The deadly traffic stop at the center of a federal civil rights lawsuit was captured on camera.

But the video doesn't tell the whole story.
Deven Guilford was shot seven times by a Michigan sheriff's sergeant in February after the 17-year-old attacked the officer on the side of a snowy highway, according to a report from the Eaton County Prosecuting Attorney's Office.
    The officer, Eaton County Sheriff's Sgt. Jonathan Frost, was cleared by the county prosecutor in June after an investigation into the teen's shooting death.
    In the federal complaint, filed Wednesday, Guilford's family said their son should never have even been pulled over.
    "There really wasn't anything that the cop didn't do wrong," said Hugh Davis, the attorney for Gilford's family.
    The victim's family is seeking damages and a trial by jury, the suit says.
    The family wants justice for their son, and also see an opportunity to bring "awareness of how things really are" when it comes to law enforcement and excessive force, Davies said.
    For Guilford's family, "it's a permanent cloud over the sun and every day is a cloudy day," Davis said.

    Shooting in the snow

    The temperature was in the teens on the Saturday night in February, around 8:30, when Guilford flashed his high beams at Sgt. Frost's police vehicle.
    Guilford had just dropped his brother off at a church and was driving to his girlfriend's house in the town of Mulliken, according to an account of the stop from the county prosecutor's office.
    Frost pulled the teen over and turned on his body camera before exiting his vehicle, multiple accounts of the traffic stop show.
    "I couldn't see," Guilford says to Frost, as recorded on the body camera, complaining to the officer that the headlights of his vehicle -- a new SUV, according to the complaint and report -- were shining in his eyes.
    "I didn't have them on," Frost responds, meaning his high beams. He asks the teen for his license and registration.
    Guilford persists, and Frost continues to deny his high beams were on, asking more times for the driver's license. Their argument escalates.
    Frost radios for backup as Guilford continues to refuse to produce his identification. Guilford makes a phone call and begins to record the interaction on his own cell phone camera. Guilford admits he does not have his license after Frost asks for it a sixth time. Frost wrests open the driver's door and points a Taser at Guilford, telling him to get on the ground to be detained.
    Frost later writes in a narrative account of the stop submitted as part of the police incident report that he thought that in light of Guilford's challenges, the teen may have calling in reinforcements from a local "sovereign citizen or militia movement." The prosecuting attorney's report references a recent police bulletin that warned officers about such threats.
    Guilford lowers slowly and reluctantly to the ground. Frost screams for him to lie down with his hands on his side. Guilford continues to film the scene and struggles from the asphalt next to his car.
    Guilford, shown on Frost's body camera with his elbows propping him up on the side of the highway, his cell phone in his right hand, says, "This is what American--"
    Frost grabs his phone and throws it feet away on the ground.
    "You can't do that!" the teen cries, getting up.
    "Get your hands behind your back. You're under arrest," the officer shouts back.
    Frost discharges his Taser into Guilford's back.
    The Taser was shot too close to its target and didn't administer a full shock, the report by the county prosecutor later noted. Instead of being incapacitated, Guilford leaps up angrily.
    Only audio recorded on the body camera, and from Guilford's cell phone still recording on the ground nearby, captures what happens in the next 13 to 14 seconds: Heavy breathing, thumping noises, seven gun shots, and a scream.

    More evidence and no charge

    A months-long investigation into the shooting by the Michigan State Police was handed over to the Eaton County Prosecutor's Office in May, and in a release dated June 16, county prosecuting attorney Douglas Lloyd declined to bring charges against Frost.
    "While, in retrospect, both Deven and Sgt. Frost could have made different choices, ultimately this tragedy would not have occurred if Deven Guilford had not physically attacked Sgt. Frost," Lloyd wrote.
    In the 20-page June report, Lloyd cites medical and forensic reports as well as over 400 pages of interviews and documents from officers involved, revealing evidence that tells a more complete story, beyond the nearly six minutes of fateful video.
    "He ran at me swinging his fists... [Guilford was] on top of me, repeatedly punching me in the head," Frost wrote in the narrative account of the incident.
    With blood dripping into his eyes, beginning to lose consciousness, Frost fired at Guilford, the prosecutor's report said.
    "I feared that if I were to lose consciousness, he would take my gun and shoot me with it," Frost wrote in his account.
    Pictures taken at Sparrow Hospital after the shooting, included in the prosecutor's report, show Frost with streaks of blood running down his face. A doctor characterized his injuries as "significant facial trauma," the prosecutor's report showed.
    A report by the Eaton County Medical Examiner found cuts to Guilford's face and upper body and determined entry points of the seven bullets to the front of his body -- evidence that Lloyd said was consistent with Frost's account of a scuffle.
    Small amounts of THC were found in the teen's blood system, according to the report, and in his car was as a hand-rolled cigarette inside a bottle with what was labeled as 1 gram of "90% Sativa / 10% Indicia" -- referring to two species of marijuana.
    And interviews with Guilford's father and girlfriend revealed that the teen had become strongly focused on YouTube videos of police encounters, the prosecutor said.
    "They said that Deven's focus on these videos was recent, sudden, out of the ordinary, and may have influenced Deven in this traffic stop," Lloyd wrote in the report.
    Guilford's family did not respond to CNN's request for comment. Frost could not be reached.
    Eaton County Sheriff Tom Reich said Friday that the incident was "a tragedy for everyone involved," and said he stands by the determination Frost had not violated police regulations and training.
    In the wake of the incident, Reich noted, his office has reviewed "the training provided officers in the use of the Taser, given increased emphasis to defensive tactics training, reviewed and continued training regarding the positioning of vehicles during high risk traffic stops, and reviewed and continued to emphasize training concerning officer communications with the citizens they encounter to increase the instances of voluntary cooperation following a decision to make an arrest."

    Opposing interpretations of traffic law

    The lawsuit filed Wednesday in Michigan District Court does not mention the attack detailed in the June report, but it argues that every moment up until it and after should never have happened.
    The first sin, according to the suit, was the initial traffic stop. It was the third time Frost had responded to a driver flashing his high beams at him for having lights that were "improperly bright or misaimed," though the previous stops had all ended without citations, the suit says.
    The stops were all unlawful, the suit argues, as Michigan traffic law does not prohibit flashing brights. Each of the officer's subsequent actions -- demanding a driver's license, detaining the driver "as if he were a felon," using a Taser on him and eventually shooting him -- were then, in turn, unlawful, the suit contends.
    The suit's claims fall in direct contrast to the county prosecutor's report from June, which interpreted the same state driving law text differently.
    "Whenever the driver of a vehicle approaches an oncoming vehicle within 500 feet, such driver shall use a distribution of light or composite beam so aimed that the glaring rays are not projected into the eyes of the oncoming driver," the law reads.
    The prosecutor's June report goes on to cite a Michigan Secretary of State driving booklet that says "It is illegal to use or even flash high-beam headlights within 500 feet of an oncoming vehicle."
    A representative for the Eaton County Comptroller and James Dyer, the attorney for Frost, both declined to comment to CNN on Thursday until they could further review the suit.
    It's this interpretation of traffic law -- at the crux of the lawsuit -- that may determine the outcome.

    Remembered by many

    A Facebook group called "Justice for Deven Guilford," run by the family, is verdant with posts of support and pictures of the blond, ruddy-faced teenager.
    Guilford's then-girlfriend, identified in his obituary as Brittany Patterson, wrote in the group in August: "Being someone's first love may be great, but to be their last is beyond PERFECT. It would of been 3 years this month."
    On that cold night in February, Patterson arrived at the scene of the traffic stop shortly after Guilford was shot, the prosecutor's report said.
    It was Patterson's car that Guilford had been driving to her house. It was she that he had called in the middle of the traffic stop, and she'd picked up only to hear what sounded like "someone was running or out of breath" the report said.
    She had brought Guilford's wallet and driver's license, the report said. He had left them at her house.