Jury trial opens in $5 million civil case against county police

LAWRENCEVILLE -- It started with a homeless man fessing up to Gwinnett 911 operators that he was wanted in DeKalb County, telling them he could be found at a BP gas station on Rosebud Road near Snellville.

The call, made from a payphone just before midnight on Dec. 15, 2006, set in motion events that would cost one man his life -- and could cost the county millions in a wrongful death payout.

James Stoudenmire was a 25-year-old rookie officer responding as backup to that call. On U.S. Highway 78 near Paxton Drive, his marked cruiser came from behind and collided with a 1990 Plymouth Acclaim driven by Willie Allen Sargent Jr., 52, who was trying to turn left. He died at the scene.

Stoudenmire received minor injuries that didn't require medical attention.

Attorneys for Sargent's widow, Faustina Sargent, are seeking $5 million in damages from the county in a civil trial that began Monday afternoon.

In court, attorney Terry Jackson pointed to findings that Stoudenmire was traveling 34 mph above the speed limit on a non-emergency call (78 in a 45 mph zone) without engaging his flashing lights or sirens at the time of impact.

Two accident reconstruction experts on a Gwinnett police internal committee found that the collision would not have happened if Stoudenmire was traveling the speed limit, testified the first witness, Gwinnett Police Chief Charles Walters.

"I thought it was a very serious policy violation ... very serious," the chief testified.

The Gwinnett officer who fielded the initial call, Jeff Murray, testified that the situation was clearly "Code 3," or a non-emergency in which regular traffic laws would apply to officers.

For his actions, Stoudenmire was suspended from the department for 24 days and then relegated to desk work for 90 days, Walters said. In testimony, Walters called that punishment appropriate.

Stoudenmire resigned from the force following an off-duty DUI arrest in 2009. He later pleaded guilty to reckless driving and received two years probation, court records show.

In other testimony, UPS supervisor Mario Norwood said he was headed home that night on U.S. Highway 78 and watched Sargent pull into the reversible turn lane. A police cruiser then blew past Norwood and violently collided with the vehicle, sending both cars off the road, Norwood testified.

The police car "was going so fast, it rocked my vehicle," he said.

The trial is expected to wrap up Wednesday at latest, attorneys for the plaintiff said.