Omaha City Council Discusses Plea Agreement in Octavius Johnson Case


May 4th, 2016

Octavius Johnson stands at the podium in the legistlative chambers. Johnson said he and his family were coerced into making a settlement agreement, and wants to take his case to trial. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, KVNO News)

Octavius Johnson stands at the podium in the legislative chambers. Johnson said he and his family were coerced into making a settlement agreement, and wants to take his case to trial. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, KVNO News)

Omaha City Council members were asked to decide whether a plea agreement in a case of excessive force by police was in the best interest of the City, or whether the case should go to trial.

The first item on Tuesday’s agenda was a resolution to reconsider a liquor license application the Council had originally denied back in April. The resolution only needed a motion and a second to pass, which it received.

The applicant, Lamar Brown, wants to open a sports bar in the location of the old Native Omaha Club. After his application was denied, Council members encouraged Brown to come back with a new business plan; he’s expected to present that new plan to the Council next week.

Stephen Hoth was also told to come back before the Council, and he complied with that request Tuesday. Hoth is the owner of the Mid-West African Supermarket at 46th and Dodge Streets. Hoth returned to the Council after a year in operation with no incidents. He wants the Council to remove the restrictions on his liquor license prohibiting him from selling single cans of beer and single shots liquor.

Hoth told the Council the restrictions put him on an uneven playing field with several of his competitors.

The Council approved lifting the restrictions on the African Supermarket by a vote of 6-1.

During the public hearings of consent agenda items, community activist Spencer McGruder spoke in favor of a professional services agreement between the City and HDR Engineering. McGruder said HDR should be applauded for its economic inclusion efforts, hiring and contracting with several minority owned businesses.

McGruder also used the opportunity to caution the Council against catering to any one entity that represents potential participants in the economic inclusion program. McGruder cited the American Council of Engineering Companies of Nebraska as an example.

“Adjusting the law to accommodate this group, then the next group is going to use that as a precedent,” McGruder said. “If you modify the law to ACEC’s requirements or desires, then the next group is going to be ‘AGC’ that comes in. [They’ll say] they have a constituency that will feel burdened by this ordinance.”

McGruder’s comments spurned a discussion about the City’s effort to develop a uniform policy for all departments to follow when it comes to economic inclusion and City contracts.

Council President Ben Gray said the process is ongoing, but it hasn’t exactly been easy. He referenced a meeting which took place earlier Tuesday morning between ACEC representatives and the City’s Human Rights and Relations department.

“[The ACEC] brought a document down to us today, for us to look at and potentially approve, that had not been gone over with Human Rights and Relations (Department), nor had it been gone over with the Public Works Department,” Gray said. “So I was very disappointed with where we were. I’m very disappointed in where we are. I’m very disappointed in how slow we’re going. We will work to speed things up a little bit and we will l work to stop what some might consider to be game-playing going on.”

Council Members approved the professional services agreement between the City and HDR Engineering, along with the rest of the consent agenda, by a vote of 7-0.

The Council then turned its attention to a resolution which would authorize the law department to agree to a plea deal with Octavius Johnson and two of his family members.

The Johnsons filed a lawsuit against the City in federal court in 2013. The lawsuit alleges police used excessive force and conducted a warrant-less search after an incident which started as a parking dispute.

Under the terms of the federally mediated plea agreement, each of the three plaintiffs would be paid $30,000, and up to $60,000 would be set aside for legal fees.

But at Tuesday’s meeting, all three of the plaintiffs appeared before the Council, and said they no longer agreed to the terms of the agreement.

Octavius Johnson said, “I was speaking with my family prior to coming here today about what we would say, what we wouldn’t say. I’ve heard a lot of [the Council] say you’re not familiar with the process, so we’re that much less familiar with processes or what goes on. My family asked me not to say—but I will—I believed we were coerced, professionally coerced, into the settlement that is here.”

Assistant City Attorney Ryan Wiesen told Council members the Federal magistrate judge overseeing the mediation asked the Johnson’s if they believed an agreement had been reached, and they had all said yes. Even Diana Vogt, the lawyer for the Johnsons, told Council members she thought a settlement had been reached as well.

“I’m in an ethical position that I don’t know what to do,” Vogt told the Council. “I was in the court room, I was in the room with the magistrate during all of the mediation proceedings. I know everything that went on. The judge asked me on the record if I believed we had an agreement, I said yes. I believe as an officer of the court, I am bond to that. On the other hand, my duty is to zealously represent my clients. So I do not know what my role at this second is.”

Councilwoman Aimee Melton said the role of the Council at this stage in the process is to decide whether the plea agreement is in the best interest of the City, not whether the plea agreement awarded enough or too much money to the plaintiffs. Melton said an hour of public discussion was not enough time to make such a decision, a majority of the Council agreed, and the item was laid over for two weeks.

If the Council approves the resolution, the case goes back before the federal magistrate for final approval. If the Council denies the resolution, the case of Johnson, et al vs the City of Omaha will be decided in a federal courtroom.

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