Civil rights lawsuit against police officer refiled

JOHNSTOWN – An attorney for an Altoona man shot by a city police officer last year has refiled a federal civil rights lawsuit contending the officer was overly aggressive the night of the incident because of virtual firearms training just before beginning his shift.

Altoona attorney Douglas V. Stoehr charges that the officer, Mark Sprouse, went to an indoor shooting range in the basement of the Van Zandt VA Medical Center prior to shooting James Weyant of Bellwood.

Stoehr said that Weyant

couldn’t sleep that night and about 4 a.m. decided to walk down an alley between Fourth and Fifth avenues to a friend’s house.

He could not reach his friend so he was returning to his apartment. He was wearing a long T-shirt, a hoodie, Guitar Hero boxer shorts and sandals.

Weyant was attempting to carry a cigarette in his right hand, but his shorts kept slipping. He tired of holding his shorts with his left hand while smoking using his right hand, so he took off the shorts, the suit contends.

As he walked back to his apartment, the officer pulled up. Weyant stated he turned and began walking in the opposite direction of the officer’s cruiser.

Sprouse, it is contended, got out of his vehicle and shot at Weyant.

The lawsuit states Weyant was wounded in his right upper arm, lost the function and sensation in his right hand and suffered mental and emotional distress.

The suit contends that the officer went to the shooting range prior to his shift.

Andrea Young, a public affairs officer for the VA hospital, said there is a “virtual center” in the facility. She said many police officers come there to train.

She said the system is like a video game in that it is “a virtual training program.” The training provides officers with active shooter training.

Stoehr contends the officer did not become involved with the “situational or judgment training” at the facility but used the system to participate in video shooting games known as “Zombies” and “OK Corral.”

The suit alleges, “[The officer’s] participation in this activity … resulted in a psychological effect upon him, i.e., a link between the simulation of shooting and his later aggression in shooting James Weyant.”

Stoehr said the police department condoned the training and believes a supervisor was present.

He criticized the city’s failure to provide situational-judgment training for its officers or to train the officers in the use of nonlethal weapons, like a stun gun.

According to the lawsuit, Weyant was peaceful that night, not intoxicated nor disruptive, was not violating any laws and was not exhibiting any behavior “which would appear to a reasonable person as menacing, threatening or harmful.”

The lawsuit charges a federal civil rights violation of the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, a civil charge of assault, battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligence.

Stoehr is asking for monetary damages.

Sprouse was cleared of any wrongdoing by Blair District Attorney Richard A. Consiglio, who said the officer was investigating the “suspicious actions” of a civilian in a dark alley. The officer thought the black shorts Weyant was holding was a weapon.

The Altoona police Shooting Review Board also cleared Sprouse of any wrongdoing.

Altoona Police Chief Janice Freehling, as well as other officers and the attorney representing the city and the officer could not be reached Tuesday.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.