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Judge dismisses suit over dead teen

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Lowell Bray has dismissed a lawsuit against the Pasco County Sheriff's Office by the parents of slain teenager Joshan Ashbrook.

However, attorney Tom Carey said Monday that he would amend the lawsuit and refile it in the coming weeks. Bray issued his ruling on Friday.

Ashbrook's mother, Tara Ramsdell, claims that the Sheriff's Office failed to follow a July 29, 2002, court order and take 16-year-old Ashbrook into custody for substance abuse treatment under the Marchman Act.

The deputies never came to get Ashbrook, despite Ramsdell's repeated phone calls to the Sheriff's Office. Nearly 36 hours after the court order, on July 31, Ashbrook ran away from her mother's house in New Port Richey. The next day, she was found dead on Shady Hills Road.

The lawsuit alleges that had deputies followed the court order and taken Ashbrook into custody, she would not have been killed.

In September 2003, a grand jury indicted Phillup Partin, 38, with her murder. He awaits trial. According to investigators, Partin picked up Ashbrook while she was hitchhiking. He brought her to a Port Richey house where they played video games and watched TV. Detectives say they found Ashbrook's blood on the walls and in the carpet of a guest bedroom of the house.

Thomas Poulton, an attorney for the Sheriff's Office, said that based on legal precedent, the agency can't be held liable for Ashbrook's death. It has no special duty to protect an individual. It is only liable if the law enforcement officers create the danger, make a specific promise or already have the person in custody, he said.

In this case, the Sheriff's Office did not physically take Ashbrook into custody.

Nonetheless, Carey argued, the Marchman Act order created that special duty to protect Ashbrook. Bray disagreed that the signing of the order created a special duty, Poulton said.

"It's not that distressing at this point in the litigation," Carey said.

He added that he will amend the lawsuit in the coming week. Ramsdell claims that deputies promised her that they would come get Ashbrook during her repeated phone calls to the Sheriff's Office.

There is strong precedent supporting a lawsuit on that claim, Carey said.

Poulton said he would have to wait to see the amended lawsuit. Depending on its strength, he could then file for another dismissal or prepare for litigation.

The latter would entail "getting into the history of this whole sad case," he added.

Since Ashbrook's killing, the Sheriff's Office has refined its policies for taking people into custody under the Marchman Act. That is not an admission of culpability, Poulton said.

Bray, in his ruling, gave Carey 20 days to amend the complaint.

_ Richard Raeke covers courts in west Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6236, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6236. His e-mail address is rraekesptimes.com.

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