Wrongful enforcement of DV protection order made family’s life hell, lawsuit alleges

·7 min read

Like many couples during the pandemic, Dontey and Rachel Watkins saw a strain in their marriage.

But a wrongful arrest by the Olympia Police Department in November 2020 and a subsequent six months of criminal litigation made their lives hell, a federal civil rights lawsuit filed last week in the Western District of Washington alleges.

The couple of 16 years and their three young boys — who all identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) — lived in low-income housing while their mom studied to be a nurse and their father, a barber by trade, worked for a staffing agency, the Watkins’ lawsuit says.

In October 2020, Rachel Watkins sought a domestic violence protection order against her husband to get him connected to social services, according to the lawsuit.

Her statement in the protection order petition alleged he had substance abuse and mental health issues that made him act hostile, which concerned her due to past incidents of violence and threats to kill her.

In one case from 2018, Dontey Watkins “had been up for days and had become physical.” She called the police but officers couldn’t find him. She emailed the prosecuting attorney to beg not to press charges.

She wrote she had not sought medical attention other times to prevent him from being arrested.

In some instances, Dontey Watkins had hallucinations that caused him to become paranoid about federal agents capturing him or shadow demons being in their home. He sometimes threatened to kill himself.

Dontey Watkins also held a gun to his wife’s head once. And was charged in a drive-by shooting 14 years earlier, landing him on Washington’s Most Wanted for a few years.

So on Oct. 23, 2020, a judge granted a temporary protection order barring him from going to his family’s home and contacting his wife and children.

Revolving restrictions

But less than two weeks later, before a hearing for a long-term or permanent protection order, Rachel Watkins asked a judge to lift it.

By Nov. 4, Dontey Watkins was acting more “level-headed” and had agreed to seek counseling, according to a court filing by his wife. She wanted him to be able to see his kids and watch them on the weekends while she was at work.

The next day, Dontey Watkins went to the Thurston County Family and Juvenile Court and received both the original protection order and the order lifting most restrictions against him.

Court documents don’t explain why Olympia police did not serve him court papers within five days of the temporary October order as required by state law.

Another day later, Rachel Watkins appeared for a hearing on the protection order and asked the judge to put restrictions back in place against her husband. It’s unclear why she changed her mind.

Dontey Watkins didn’t show but wasn’t penalized because police didn’t serve him court papers within the required time frame, according to the lawsuit.

Wrongful arrest

Dontey Watkins went back to his family’s home on Nov. 7, apparently unaware of the new court order prohibiting him from visiting, the lawsuit says.

He was distressed, hungry and houseless and wanted his wife’s help.

Rachel Watkins called 911 to tell the police to serve her husband the new order, according to the lawsuit. He was gone by the time an officer arrived.

The officer, Brooklyn McKoon, who is a defendant in the lawsuit, later talked to Dontey Watkins on the phone. He admitted to going home the day prior and agreed to meet McKoon at an Olympia church the next day to get the updated court papers.

At the church, Dontey Watkins handed over the documents he had, which didn’t include the reissued restrictions against him, according to the lawsuit.

Then McKoon debated with three other officers about whether to arrest Dontey Watkins as he stood by watching them, the lawsuit says. The other officers also are defendants in the lawsuit identified as B. Houser, A. Watkins and J. Winner.

McKoon decided to arrest Watkins for violating the no-contact order he never received despite the concerns of the others, the lawsuit alleges.

One told Dontey Watkins that “he was not in charge of the situation” and couldn’t stop his arrest, according to the lawsuit.

In a police report, McKoon said she served him the order while he was in custody, the lawsuit says. Court records from the protection order case show he was served at the Olympia Municipal Jail.

A plea to not prosecute

Rachel Watkins emailed the city prosecutor’s office two days later requesting the case not be charged because she had only called the police for the sake of her husband’s well-being, according to the lawsuit. Her email was forwarded to prosecutors Bryana Pinkston and R. Tye Graham, as well as her husband’s first public defender, Diana Duch.

The prosecutor’s office charged him that same day, court records show.

Judge Pro Tem Charles Houser issued an additional no-contact order for the criminal case despite Rachel Watkins asking him not to during a hearing, according to the lawsuit. Dontey Watkins pleaded not guilty.

The lawsuit alleges Dontey Watkins’ new public defender, Mark Baum, never raised the issue of McKoon’s lack of probable cause to arrest his client in court or emails with prosecutors.

Meanwhile, Dontey Watkins remained houseless, his court dates continued to be pushed and he missed the holidays with his family.

At home, Rachel Watkins struggled to balance school, work and childcare, according to the lawsuit. Her grades slipped drastically and she began suffering from panic attacks.

The kids were “confused, lonely and acting out” without their father around, the lawsuit says.

Neither of the Watkins showed for a hearing in the original civil protection order case, so a judge dismissed it in November, court records say.

Pleadings unheard

The following January, Rachel Watkins asked the judge overseeing the criminal case to rescind the protection order so her husband could come home, according to the lawsuit. Judge Scott Ahlf only allowed written communication between the parents regarding the kids.

Baum, Dontey Watkins’ attorney, pressured his client to take a plea deal, the lawsuit says. He would have had to serve four more days in jail and go on probation.

Rachel Watkins again asked a judge to terminate the protection order in February to no avail, according to the lawsuit.

She alleges she wasn’t able to reach Baum about the lack of probable cause. She also said he never contacted her for an interview, he didn’t return her emails and the phone number provided by the court was inoperable.

Things changed when Dontey Watkins hired a private attorney in late April 2021.

The lawyers began negotiating with prosecutors in early May and prosecutors agreed to drop the case within several days, according to the lawsuit.

On May 12, 2021, Ahlf, the judge, dismissed the case and terminated the no-contact order, the lawsuit says.

Dontey Watkins returned home to his family the next day and saw his kids for the first time in 186 days, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit

The city of Olympia declined to comment on the specifics of the case, citing the pending lawsuit.

“However, Olympia Police Department would like the public to know that we perform duties in a routinely professional and unbiased manner,” city spokesperson Carrie McCausland wrote in an email.

Attorneys for the Watkins filed tort claims on behalf of each family member in June as a precursor to the federal lawsuit. It alleged racial profiling contributed to Dontey Watkins’ arrest and prosecution.

The incident “can only be characterized as one of the greatest screwups or malicious acts in Olympia Police Department history,” the claim says.

The family moved to Steilacoom and avoids Olympia for errands out of fear of law enforcement, the lawsuit says. They now have another infant son together.

When Dontey Watkins leaves the house, the older kids still ask “if Daddy is going to jail,” the lawsuit alleges.