Lawsuit: Atlanta officer broke man’s collarbone weeks before shooting Rayshard Brooks

Three weeks before shooting and killing Rayshard Brooks during a scuffle in a Wendy’s parking lot, embattled Atlanta police Officer Garrett Rolfe broke a man’s collarbone during a DUI stop, according to a federal complaint filed Monday.

The lawsuit accuses Rolfe of using excessive force when he allegedly grabbed Charles Johnson Jr. and threw him to the ground during a May 22, 2020, arrest, “thoroughly breaking his collarbone among other minor injuries.”

It wasn’t the first time Rolfe was accused of using excessive force on the job. And Johnson’s attorney, Keith Foster, said if the Atlanta Police Department had handled a previous complaint appropriately, Brooks might still be alive.

“Rolfe had no business being on the streets,” Foster told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday.

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Rolfe faces murder and a host of other charges in Brooks’ shooting, which occurred June 12 after police were called to the Wendy’s and found the 27-year-old asleep behind the wheel in the drive-thru line. A scuffle began after Brooks struck the other officer on the scene, Devin Brosnan, hard enough to cause a concussion, grabbed the officer’s Taser and aimed it at Rolfe, who shot at Brooks as he ran away.

Rolfe was fired the following day, and both officers were charged days later after a brief investigation by former Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard’s office.

Johnson’s attorney said his client was driving under the influence of alcohol three weeks earlier when he was stopped by Rolfe shortly before 11 p.m. in the southbound lanes of I-85 near the Buford Highway Connector. Johnson was on a date at the time, and the federal complaint admits he was impaired behind the wheel.

“He gets out of the car, and as most intoxicated people do, he was talking too much,” Foster said of his client. “He was trying to explain his situation and wasn’t listening to the verbal commands of Officer Rolfe.”

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According to a police report written by Rolfe, Johnson was stopped after he was clocked driving 86 mph in a 55-mph zone. Rolfe got involved after a second officer spotted Johnson and another driver speeding and asked for help pulling the vehicles over, according to the incident report.

“Rolfe then grew impatient when (Johnson) was not listening to his verbal commands, but at no point was there any threat. At no point was there any violence,” Foster said. “Officer Rolfe simply lost his patience and slammed my guy to the ground.”

During the stop, Rolfe noticed that Johnson, 49 at the time, had bloodshot, watery eyes and asked if he’d been drinking, according to the incident report. Johnson reportedly told him he hadn’t but Rolfe noticed an open can of Bud Light underneath the driver’s seat. He also wrote that he found an open bottle of brandy under the front-passenger seat and said a woman riding in the car had an open container of wine.

Johnson eventually admitted to drinking one beer, and Rolfe asked him to gauge his level of impairment on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being “very impaired.”

“He said he was a two and admitted to feeling ‘buzzed,’” Rolfe wrote in the arrest report, adding that Johnson failed his initial sobriety tests and refused to take any others.

Body camera footage released by the department shows Rolfe ask Johnson why he is shaking as he conducts the sobriety tests on the side of the interstate. Johnson replied that he has anxiety.

During one of the initial tests, Johnson asks, “Why is this happening to me?” He also explains that he’s involved in a “love triangle” and that he just wants to go home, the footage shows.

“Because you’re speeding and you’ve been drinking,” Rolfe replies. “I want to make sure you’re safe to drive.”

Johnson told the officer he had a commercial driver’s license and couldn’t afford to lose his livelihood if he fails the sobriety test. He also asked if Rolfe would let his date drive him home.

“He repeatedly begged me to let his passenger drive and offered alternatives to continuing my DUI investigation,” Rolfe wrote in his report. “I went to place Mr. Johnson under arrest but he began resisting by pulling his arm away, refusing to place his hands behind his back, and attempting to twist his body to face me.”

Rolfe said he wrapped his arm over Johnson’s right shoulder and “took him to the ground,” eventually placing the man in handcuffs on the side of the highway. Johnson told him his shoulder was injured, and Rolfe said he called for an ambulance.

While waiting in the back of the patrol SUV, Johnson reportedly urinated in the back seat. He asked to be let out so he could go on the side of the road, but Rolfe refused, according to the incident report.

“When I refused to allow Mr. Johnson to potentially expose himself to passing motorists, he proceeded to urinate more in my vehicle,” he wrote.

Johnson was eventually taken to Grady Memorial Hospital, where doctors discovered he had a dislocated left shoulder and a broken clavicle, according to his attorney. He has since undergone two surgeries. The excessive force complaint filed against both Rolfe and the city of Atlanta seeks a jury trial and $3.5 million in damages.

“Rolfe has a history of multiple citizen complaints against him including a reprimand for a firearm discharge prior to this incident described in this case, and subsequent to this incident, he shot and killed a man,” the lawsuit said, referring to the Brooks case.

The federal complaint also accuses the city of encouraging, tolerating and being “deliberately indifferent” to previous use-of-force cases involving Atlanta’s officers. An Atlanta police spokesman said the department does not comment on pending litigation, and Rolfe’s attorney also declined to comment on the lawsuit when reached by phone Tuesday afternoon.

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Though his criminal charges are pending in the Brooks case, Rolfe was reinstated last week after Atlanta’s Civil Service Board ruled he was denied due process when he was fired less than 24 hours after the deadly shooting. The order reinstating Rolfe does not return him to active duty, however, as his bond conditions prevent him from having a gun or being around other officers. He will receive back pay for his time away from the department and will be compensated at the same rate as he was before his dismissal.

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Foster called the board’s decision to reinstate Rolfe “stunning” in light of Brooks’ fatal shooting and the injuries his client suffered weeks earlier.

“Mr. Brooks should still be alive today. Mr. Rolfe should have never been a police officer, in my opinion,” Foster said. “I cannot believe he was reinstated.”