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News / Northwest

Former Tacoma cops acquitted in Manny Ellis case ask state to pay their defense costs

By Peter Talbot, The News Tribune
Published: February 14, 2024, 2:24pm

TACOMA — Two former Tacoma police officers acquitted in the in-custody death of Manuel Ellis have asked a Pierce County judge to decide whether the state of Washington owes them for the cost of their legal defense.

Attorneys for a third officer charged and acquitted in Ellis’ March 3, 2020 death, Timothy Rankine, are reviewing the motion filed Friday, according to one of his lawyers. A hearing has been set for March 8.

If Matthew Collins, Christopher Burbank and Rankine are granted the request, it could mean hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of more dollars would be paid out to the former officers. The three received $500,000 each as part of an agreement to resign from the Tacoma Police Department last month, and they collectively were paid more than $1 million while employed on leave for the duration of the criminal case.

Casey Arbenz, an attorney for Collins, told The News Tribune he hadn’t tallied the full cost of his client’s defense but that it was “well over” $1 million and approaching $2 million. Brett Purtzer, an attorney for Burbank, who joined Collins’ motion, estimated that the former officer’s defense costs amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“It’s a lot. I mean it’s really, really a lot,” Purtzer said. “There’s six lawyers that were in court, you know, for that three months plus all the preparation time, so there’s a lot of money involved.”

The Washington State Attorney General’s Office, whose attorneys prosecuted the case, said through a spokesperson Wednesday that there is no basis for the claim.

“In order to be entitled to defense costs, Mr. Collins and Mr. Burbank would need the jury to find that the homicide was justified, or in self-defense,” spokesperson Brionna Aho said in an email. “The judge rejected the defense’s request for an instruction on justifiable homicide, concluding that instruction was not supported by the evidence. “

It’s unclear who would be on the hook for the tab. The law that relates to the officers’ motion, RCW 9A.16.046, states that when a peace officer charged with a crime is found not guilty by reason of justifiable homicide, use of deadly force or by reason of self-defense for actions taken while on duty, the state of Washington will reimburse the defendant for all reasonable costs, including loss of time, legal fees incurred and related expenses.

Arbenz said he wasn’t sure who should pay for Collins’ defense costs because the statute was vague.

“But I assume it would be the [Attorney General’s Office] given that they were the ones that decided to prosecute it and obviously the county sort of punted on it,” Arbenz said.

Purtzer said the state should pick up the tab.

“When you have a self-defense case, which in essence is what this case was, then there’s a state fund that takes care of the self-defense,” Purtzer said. “Not only the attorneys fees and costs, but if there’s any out-of-pocket costs that the officers would have sustained as well.”

Included in the reimbursement statute is a provision that the acquitted officers be paid for loss of time, but Purtzer said that isn’t an issue in this case because Collins, Burbank and Rankine were “made whole” through the City of Tacoma.

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Judge Bryan Chushcoff will preside over the March 8 hearing, according to court records. Arbenz said he thought the judge would decide then if Collins was entitled to the reimbursement, and he said he expects a subsequent hearing will be set to determine the amounts.

A jury acquitted Collins, Burbank and Rankine of murder or manslaughter charges Dec. 21 after a 10-week trial.

Ellis, 33, died after encountering Collins and Burbank while walking home in Tacoma’s South End. He was beaten, shocked with a Taser three times, pressed to the ground on his stomach and had all of his limbs tied behind his back in a hogtie position while officers knelt or sat on him. Rankine responded as backup and reportedly putting all of his weight on Ellis, who repeatedly said he could not breathe. The former Pierce County medical examiner found Ellis died of oxygen deprivation from physical restraint.

Defense attorneys for the officers argued none of the officers’ actions killed Ellis,and that they had to continue to restrain him even after he said he could not breathe because he continued to resist arrest.

No finding of wrongdoing has been sustained against the officers. After the trial, the Police Department’s internal investigation resumed, and Chief Avery Moore announced Jan. 16 that the officers were largely cleared of violating policy based on policies that were in place when Ellis died. The chief said TPD’s use-of-force policy failed to serve the department or the community, but it guided him in his decision because it was the policy at the time.

A federal review of the officers’ actions is ongoing by the office of Tessa Gorman, U.S. Attorney for Western Washington. Gorman’s office said Jan. 12 that it would independently review the state’s criminal case against Collins, Burbank and Rankine for any violations of federal criminal statutes.

Multiple police department policies changed in the wake of Ellis’ death, including a ban on hogtying and neck restraints and the creation of a policy on the use of spit hoods. Last month, Mayor Victoria Woodards testified at the state Capitol in support of a bill that would ban law enforcement from hogtying people to restrain them. Senate Bill 6009 unanimously passed the Senate Feb. 6, and it’s now being considered in the state House of Representatives.