Attorney general declines to represent trooper sued in federal civil rights case

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Rhode Island Troopers Association is fighting with Attorney General Peter Kilmartin over his decision to refuse to represent – and indemnify – a trooper who is being sued in federal court.

Trooper James Donnelly-Taylor is one of the defendants in a federal civil rights lawsuit accusing him of using excessive force and assaulting a Central Falls man, Lionel Monsanto, during a traffic stop in 2014. Donnelly-Taylor pleaded no contest to a charge of simple assault in the wake of the incident.

According to federal court documents, the attorney general’s office has refused to represent Donnelly-Taylor in the civil suit. But they are representing the other defendants, including the state of Rhode Island, former State Police Col. Steven O’Donnell, Gov. Gina Raimondo, another trooper who took part in the traffic stop, and other officials.

Responding to questions about the case by Target 12, the Rhode Island Troopers Association – the union representing rank-and-file members of the state police – issued a press release blasting Kilmartin for his decision.

“Over the many years, the State has promised, through a key contract provision, to provide indemnification to protect us and our families from personal liability in the event claims are brought against us for actions occurring in the performance of our duties,” the statement said. “The State now refuses to honor this contractual commitment.”

“This has caused grave concern to all Troopers and their families, since it obviously opens all of us to serious personal liability while facing the ever-increasing hazards required by our jobs,” the statement continued.

A spokesperson for Attorney General Kilmartin said his office believes this is the first time the office has not represented a state trooper in a legal action.

“As attorney general, I will never accept that criminal conduct falls within the job description of any Rhode Island state employee,” Kilmartin said in a statement. “Committing the crime of assault upon a prisoner – or anyone – is outside of the course and scope of the duties of a state trooper, and the taxpayers should not have to defend or pay for the criminal actions of Donnelly-Taylor.”

Donnelly-Taylor was indicted in May 2014 and charged with simple assault following the Feb. 26 incident. Monsanto was stopped by the trooper and charged with driving with an expired license. He was then brought to the state police barracks in Lincoln.

According to the civil suit, Donnelly-Taylor punched Monsanto several times – including several blows to the face – while he was in a jail cell at the Lincoln barracks. The incident was caught on tape, according to court documents.

In an interview with Eyewitness News in 2014, Monsanto showed images of his head after the incident which showed a black eye and redness in the face.

“He just kept punching, punching and punching,” Monsanto said at the time.

An internal state police investigation led to Donnelly-Taylor’s prosecution. He eventually pleaded no contest to the simple assault charge and was given a one-year suspended sentence. At the time, then-Colonel O’Donnell stood by Donnelly-Taylor, saying he was “a good trooper” who has accepted responsibility for his actions.

Donnelly-Taylor – who was then on the force for five years – is still working as a trooper.

U.S. District Court Judge John McConnell – who is presiding over the lawsuit – issued an order in November prohibiting any of the parties in the case from releasing the video of the assault. In an email, McConnell said he made the decision because he did not want to taint a prospective jury pool.

The union has filed a grievance against the state for what they say is a breach of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA). In the news release, the union said the grievance is now heading toward arbitration hearings at the end of March.

In addition, on Feb. 2, Donnelly-Taylor filed what’s called a “cross-claim” in the federal civil suit. It essentially asks the judge to compel the state to indemnify Donnelly-Taylor in the lawsuit.

“The State of Rhode Island has failed to provide Trooper Taylor any payments or reimbursements for expenses he has incurred in defending claims made against him in his individual capacity in this case,” the cross-claim states.

It also says Governor Raimondo and other state officials have “failed to comply” with the CBA.

The court document quotes the CBA as saying, “The State shall provide legal counsel for any legal action arising out of conduct of State Troopers acting within the scope of their employment.”

Rhode Island law lists five reasons the attorney general can refuse to defend a state employee, including “the act or omission was not within the scope of employment” and “the act or the failure to act was because of actual fraud, willful misconduct, or actual malice.”

Tim White ( ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook