Two sisters say an East Ridge police officer used excessive force when he shot and killed their 54-year-old father last August, and they want $2.5 million in emotional damages for his wrongful death.
But if they want the case to continue, Todd Browning's daughters need to share potential evidence with the officer's defense attorneys as soon as possible, a federal magistrate judge said Tuesday.
"I'm putting you on notice that the next step I will do is incur monetary sanctions," U.S. District Magistrate Judge Christopher Steger said. "And if it goes beyond that, I will ask the district judge for dismissal."
Heather Schmitt and Brandy Browning filed suit in Chattanooga's U.S. District Court in June, saying officer Daniel Stephenson confronted their father, Todd Browning, in an "aggressive and unreasonable manner" outside his home on Prigmore Drive on Aug. 19, 2016. Instead of calling a crisis response unit or contacting his family, Stephenson escalated the situation by shouting commands, increasing Browning's "fearful state of mind" and ultimately shooting him five or six times, the suit says.
Stephenson's defense said it's not that simple.
The following account came from attorney Bryan Hoss, who represented Stephenson through a 2016 criminal investigation into the fatal shooting:
Earlier that day, Stephenson was talking with a burglary victim when a report came in around 6 p.m. about a man inside an AutoZone on Ringgold Road who was throwing objects and threatening to kill people. When Stephenson arrived at the store, gun drawn, customers pointed to a screaming Browning. The officer ordered him to stand down, but Browning threatened to kill Stephenson and himself.
Then Browning charged past Stephenson, ran out of the AutoZone, got in his car and sped away. Stephenson said he took down his license plate number, which led him to Browning's home nearby on Prigmore Drive.
The first to arrive, Stephenson pulled his rifle out of the patrol car trunk and told a woman who was outside to go into her home. Soon after, Browning came out of the home holding a roughly 3-foot-long steel plumbing tool with a T-grip on one end, Hoss said. Stephenson yelled that Browning needed to put down his weapon, while Browning yelled that Stephenson would have to kill him.
Browning never stopped moving toward him and kept swinging his tool in a "threatening manner," according to Hoss' account. Stephenson fired when Browning was so close he would have been able to hit Stephenson if he came any closer.
In November 2016, Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston elected not to press charges, saying Stephenson acted in self defense. But Stephenson and the department can still be sued for civil claims.
The lawsuit says the City of East Ridge is additionally liable for failing to supervise, monitor and train its officers, including Stephenson, a veteran of 11 years in the department. Browning never threatened the officer and had a Fourth Amendment right not to be illegally searched or seized, according to the suit.
Regardless, any legal proceeding calls on both sides to share certain information about their case with their opponent. Here, Stephenson and East Ridge's defense attorneys began asking the Browning sisters in late August to provide information on their father's medical history, among other things, court records show. It's a crucial first step, because attorneys use this information in depositions and to form legal strategies.
But because of a personal situation, the sisters haven't been able to share it, their attorney, Buddy Presley, told Steger. "I have worked on it, I've just got to get a little bit of cooperation," Presley said.
A judge can dismiss a case if the suing party doesn't follow the rules of sharing and "fails to prosecute." Steger said he didn't want to take that route, unless he has to.
He set a Dec. 21 deadline before ending the hearing.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at email@example.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.