Two days ago, I took the deposition of two police officers in a civil federal rights lawsuit (section 1983 case) involving an allegation that my client’s exterior home surveillance camera was disabled by the officers. They both pled the Fifth Amendment. Here’s a photo of the actual disabled camera:
This is from the “Creepy Cops Search Case,” which if you’ve been following my work, you’re well-aware-of. But what about situations where they don’t destroy anything, but just cover or move the camera?
I came across some recent unrelated footage of police officers covering, concealing, or otherwise redirecting, a home’s surveillance cameras. When this hit the interwebs, it of course immediately sparked discussion. Police officers defended the footage, claiming officer safety reasons to do this, with some claiming that they always do this as a matter of policy. Is this legal? Is this a Fourth Amendment violation? Is it a First Amendment violation? Is this a crime?
There are a few issues with this. Are we talking about doing this pursuant to the execution of a search warrant for the subject residence. And if so, does the search warrant specifically authorize the seizure of surveillance cameras themselves, rather than the footage?
Isn’t that weird that I just did a video on the issue of whether there’s a constitutionally protected right to flash your lights at oncoming traffic, in order to warn them of an approaching speed trap, and then what do you know, it ends up happening again right here in West Virginia. This brand new exclusive footage you’re about to see however, is the worst of those incidents I think you’ll ever see anywhere on Youtube. Frankly, I’m disgusted by the actions of this deputy with the Nicholas County, West Virginia Sheriff’s Department.
Here’s the citation William was given:
This was Corporal J.D. Ellison with the Nicholas County Sheriff’s Department. His behavior was disgraceful. But I’m also disappointed in the aftermath here. Corporal Ellison shamefully gave this man a ticket for two alleged violations – at least on paper – which were allegedly having an unsigned registration card, which is total garbage, as well as an alleged “special restrictions on lamps,” which was a frivolous charge meant to fabricate the nonexistent crime of warning fellow Americans about government waste, laziness and tyranny.
Here’s the police report by Cpl. Ellison:
You’re really not going to believe this, but William went to court yesterday in the Magistrate Court of Nicholas County – that’s Summersville, West Virginia. He represented himself. He was being prosecuted by a prosecuting attorney from that county, with the matter presiding before Nicholas County Magistrate Michael Hanks. I’m really shocked to tell you that Magistrate Hanks convicted this man of the alleged crime of “Special Restrictions on Lamps.” He did dismiss the bogus charge of having an unsigned registration card because it’s thankfully not even on the books anymore – which by the way was the offense for which William was placed in handcuffs.
Between the prosecutor and the magistrate, which of those great legal minds thought it was a good idea to convict William of “special restriction on lamps?” Just looking at the statute, which is clearly not meant to apply to this situation, it makes an explicit exception, citing a different statute that allows for flashing lights for the purpose of warning the operators of other vehicles “of the presence of a vehicular traffic hazard requiring the exercise of unusual care in approaching, overtaking or passing…, etc.”
Here’s the prior video I did on flashing lights to warn of a speed trap:
Stay tuned for updates. I’m going to help William….
Today we filed a lawsuit against multiple West Virginia parole officers for a pattern and practice of sexual abuse of female parolees in the Parkersburg, West Virginia area. Imagine being a woman in the parole system, where your male parole officer, who has the ability to search your house, arrest you, or send you to prison at any time, begins to demand sexual favors. That’s what’s been happening in West Virginia. Imagine also that you report this to your parole officer’s supervisor and he intimidates you into silence and allows it to continue. Imagine even the FBI comes in and has to tell a Parole Officer to back off, that he’s under surveillance, and meanwhile, the guy’s still employed as a Parole Officer, as if it’s just par for the course.
My client, identified in the lawsuit by her initials, tragically, was already victimized in the West Virginia correctional system. She was therefore vulnerable to these predators. When her parole officer began to engage in misconduct, she bravely recorded him. Six recordings she created. She took those recordings to the supervising Parole Officer in the region, David Jones. Instead of protecting her and other female parolees from the predator, he ordered her to destroy the evidence, telling her that the predator, Anthony DeMetro, was his friend. He told her to just stick it out until she was off parole. Meanwhile, other women were victimized, and my client was forced to live in fear and humiliation.
According to the other lawsuit that was filed, which I’ve also posted, other female victims were coming forward to state parole officials, only to be ignored – which is absolutely unacceptable. Thankfully, the FBI was listening and began an investigation. Now the feds have indicted Anthony DeMetro. His indictment is posted in full below. They also filed a criminal information charge against DeMetro’s supervisor, David Jones. I’ve posted that as well.
By now we’ve all seen the footage of the train in Colorado hitting the police car stopped on the tracks, severely injuring a woman in police custody who was placed handcuffed in the rear of the police cruiser. My immediate thought was qualified immunity. There can be no doubt that the police officer was directly at fault in causing the severe injuries to the woman in his custody. No doubt about it. But unlike a doctor who negligently injures someone, a police officer get to assert qualified immunity.
Here’s the 8 minute clip showing the train hit the cruiser:
Qualified immunity is unfair and needs to be abolished. A lawyer representing this woman, if a lawsuit is filed, is going to have the legal requirement to point to some past clearly established case law describing the officer’s conduct as a civil rights violation. Well, how many cases have there been in any particular jurisdiction where police officers let people in their custody get hit by trains? Moreover, as I’ve explained before, to establish section 1983 liability, you have to allege intentional conduct – not negligence or incompetence. Some intentional or purposeful conduct. For this reason, when one police officer accidentally shoots their partner, there’s generally no liability. I did a video on that one already.
I took a quick look at the case law in the jurisdiction where this train incident happened, which is Colorado, which is in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. So that’s where you want to look first for federal civil rights case law. I have a theory of liability here. First, take a look at some of the new footage released, from another angle.
There’s a legal doctrine under section 1983 called the state-created danger theory. Basically, it allows a pathway for a plaintiff to establish section 1983 liability for a civil rights violation where the government may not have directly or intentionally caused the injury to the plaintiff, but created the possibility or likelihood that it would occur. This theory has been adopted in the 10th Circuit. Here’s what a plaintiff would have to prove:
the charged state … actor[ ] created the danger or increased plaintiff’s vulnerability to the danger in some way;
plaintiff was a member of a limited and specifically definable group;
defendant[‘s] conduct put plaintiff at substantial risk of serious, immediate, and proximate harm;
the risk was obvious or known;
defendants acted recklessly in conscious disregard of that risk; and
such conduct, when viewed in total, is conscience shocking.
But to defeat qualified immunity, you still have to point to a prior case with a similar fact pattern. Again, a non-exhaustive review of 10th Circuit case law shows that the state-created danger doctrine has been applied:
Off-duty police officer on personal business who crashed his police vehicle;
On-duty police officer who engaged in a high-speed chase;
Firefighter who crashed his truck into a car;
Police officer who caused the death of a bystander by instructing him to help physically subdue a suspect, who then shot the civilian;
Social worker who removed a child from his mother’s home and placed him with his father, who killed him;
School official who suspended and sent home a special education student who subsequently killed himself;
State mental health administrators who eliminated a special unit for the criminally insane, causing the transfer of a murderer to the general hospital, where he killed his therapist.
The common theme for liability in the 10th Circuit under the state-created danger theory is that the victims were unable to care for themselves or had limitations imposed on their freedom by state actors. This is very much like the deliberate indifference standard imposed on correctional officers entrusted with the care of inmates. The arrestee is unable to act herself. She can’t get out of the way of the train. Likewise, if a prison catches fire, inmates locked in their cells can’t get out on their own.
I can think of a few other arguments and theories for liability. But this is an often-overlooked one, and popped into my head first. It seems to match our facts here. Watching the footage establishes, without much potential for dispute, that the arresting officer created the danger; that he rendered the victim incapable of helping herself; that he put her into harm’s way, and that the risk was obvious. You can see the fact that he had parked on the train tracks. No doubt the evidence would show that he was aware of the fact that these tracks were frequented by trains. You can actually hear the train coming in the body cam footage.
If this woman is left with no justice due to qualified immunity, hopefully people will start paying attention. Qualified immunity serves no legitimate purpose. It’s the very definition of judicial activism. I’ll be watching this one to see what happens.
Body cam footage submitted by Janet, of Union County, Illinois, shows her son, who suffered from meth-induced mental illness, being tased by police officers. Imagine parents calling 911 for an ambulance, and instead, police officers, aware that they have a warrant for the son, show up instead, and without an ambulance. Instead of medical treatment, the use force.
Jacob Anderson’s father called 911 seeking an ambulance for his son, who was suffering a mental illness emergency due to his meth addiction. An ambulance never arrived however. But several police officers did arrive, including Deputy Schildknecht, who turned on his body cam after arriving at the Anderson home. According to his report, he noted that he received a report that Jacob was having a mental health crisis, described as psychotic, and that an ambulance was needed. He then wrote, “I also knew that Jacob had a felony warrant . . . as well as history of running away naked from help when we arrived.” Upon arriving, the deputy made contact with Jacob’s parents, who indicated that Jacob was inside the residence, and appear to have let them in.
Deputy Schildknecht wrote in his report, “As I approached the door I could hear a male yelling. I then withdrew my taser and knocked on the door. I then heard the male yell “come on through, I’m going to the side door.” “As I walked through the residence and came the side door, Jacob saw me, turned and began to run away from me. “At this point i raised and fired my taser at him as he ran away.” “I was unable to issue a warning to him because the situation evolved so quickly.”
The deputy wrote that he “allowed the taser to run for the five second cycle until Sheriff Harvel and Chief Wilkins could get there to assist.”
This offers a good example of what I would classify as controversial use of a taser: against someone who poses no threat, but is merely starting to run away, and doing so immediately without explanation or warning. Let’s take a look at the footage, and then we’ll go into the law on tasering unarmed suspects in Union County, Illinois, which is the 7th Circuit.
Here’s the relevant portion of raw footage that Youtube won’t let me show without restricting the video:
He also mentioned in his report that, “After the arrest of Jacob, I realized he broke my Oakley Mercenary sunglasses [he] had been wearing…” He attached a photo of them, noting that he paid approximately $140.00 for them two years ago.
to protect the officer or others from reasonably perceived immediate threat of physical harm from the person to be exposed to the ECW;
to restrain or subdue an individual who is actively resisting or evading arrest; or
to bring an unlawful situation safely and effectively under control.
Should not be used:
on individuals who passively resist and are not reasonably perceived as an immediate threat or flight risk;
on individuals in restraints, except as objectively reasonable to prevent their escape or prevent imminent bodily injury to the individual, the officer, or another person;
however, in these situations, only the minimal amount of force necessary to control the situation shall be used;
when the officer has a reasonable belief that deployment may cause serious injury or death from situational hazards including falling, drowning, or igniting a potentially explosive or flammable material or substance, except when deadly force would be justified;
when the suspect’s movement or body positioning prevents the officer from aiming or maintaining appropriate body part targeting unless the risk of increased injury to the suspect is justified because of a perceived threat or flight risk.
Union County, Illinois is in the 7th federal circuit, which has quite a few published cases on when taser usage is considered excessive. Lewis v. Downey(7th Cir. 2009) held that the tasing of a jail inmate with no warning who wasn’t threatening the officer would be excessive, and ultimately categorized tasers as an intermediate level of force that is designed to cause severe pain. The Court noted that Courts generally hold that the use of a taser against an actively resisting suspect either does not violate clearly established law or is constitutionally reasonable. Thus, “actively resisting” may, or may not be sufficient justification for police to use a taser on a suspect.
But, what about active resistance from someone known to be mentally ill, who is not actively threatening anyone, but merely trying to run away?
In the 9th Circuit opinion in Bryan v. Mcpherson, the Court warned that, “The problems posed by, and thus the tactics to be employed against, an unarmed, emotionally distraught individual who is creating a disturbance or resisting arrest are ordinarily different from those involved in law enforcement efforts to subdue an armed and dangerous criminal who has recently committed a serious offense.” “[T]he use of force that may be justified by” the government’s interest in seizing a mentally ill person, therefore, “differs both in degree and in kind from the use of force that would be justified against a person who has committed a crime or who poses a threat to the community.” Bryan v. MacPherson(9th Cir. 2010).
The 7th Circuit has cited the 4th Circuit published opinion in Estate of Armstrong v. Pineville, which held that, “Where, during the course of seizing an out-numbered mentally ill individual who is a danger only to himself, police officers choose to deploy a taser in the face of stationary and non-violent resistance to being handcuffed, those officers use unreasonably excessive force.” Estate of Armstrong v. Vill. of Pinehurst (4th Cir. 2016).
Utilizing the Graham Factors, we can skip to the most important Graham Factor, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers, or anyone else at the scene. The video proves conclusively that there was no safety threat posed to any individual. He was running away and clearly wasn’t holding a weapon. Nor was he threatening anyone. Reviewing the deputy’s report, he admits that he tased Jacob in the back as Jacob turned to run away. He mentions no immediate safety threat as his basis for the use of force.
Now the second Graham Factor is met to some extent for the officers. He was actively evading them. However, they had not announced their presence, nor the reason for their presence. They had not identified themselves, or mentioned that they had a warrant. They pretty much instantaneously encountered him and then tased him. Was merely running away from the sight of law enforcement sufficient to constitute “active resistance” sufficient for a 5 second shock from the deputy’s taser?
Let’s look at the first and final Graham factor, the severity of the crime. There’s no allegation that Jacob had committed a crime. But he apparently did have an outstanding unnamed felony warrant. The officer’s report doesn’t mention any serious crime Jacob was alleged to have committed so as to necessitate an immediate tasing. Moreover, the reports also indicate that the officer was well aware of the fact that Jacob was suffering from a mental illness episode. Thus, the courts expect the officer to take that knowledge into account when deciding whether to tase Jacob, as opposed to tasing first, and asking questions later.
On August 19, 2022, Joshua Gibbons arrived at Aerojet Rocketdyne Corporation in Jonesborough, Tennessee. He sent me a link to his video of him getting arrested shortly afterwards. A few other people submitted this video as well.
The police officer, a deputy with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, jumped straight into a warrantless arrest here. He needed probable cause to arrest Josh without an arrest warrant. There are three levels of interaction between a police officer and an individual:
A consensual encounter;
An investigatory detention; and
A warrantless arrest.
Number 1 requires nothing, so long as it’s objectively consensual. Fourth Amendment protections to not apply to consensual encounters.
An investigatory detention requires reasonable suspicion. Fourth Amendment protections do apply to detentions. They must be reasonable.
A warrantless arrest requires probable cause.
Here, the officer appears to have skipped directly to number 3, a warrantless arrest, which requires probable cause.
What is the basic criminal trespass law in Tennessee?
State v. Hollingsworth, 944 S.W.2d 625 (Tenn. Crim. App. 1996).
Before an accused can be convicted of criminal trespass, the State of Tennessee must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that (a) the accused entered or remained on the property, or a portion of the property, of another person, and (b) the accused did not have the owner’s effective consent before entering the property. Tenn.Code Ann. § 39-14-405(a)…
The accused’s knowledge that he or she did not have the “effective consent” to enter the property may be inferred from “(1) personal communication to the [accused] by the owner or by someone with apparent authority to act for the owner,” and (2) “[f]encing or other enclosure obviously designed to exclude intruders.” Tenn.Code Ann. § 39-14-405(a)(1) and (2).
State v. Lee (Tenn. Crim. App. 2000).
Knowledge that the person did not have the owner’s effective consent may be inferred where notice against entering or remaining is given by personal communication to the person by the owner. Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-14-405(a)(1).
Was he on public or private property? If he was on private property, did Josh have knowledge that he was on private property without the owner’s consent? As far as the issue over public or private property, more information is needed. With the information given however, we know the following:
Josh subjectively believed he was located within the public right of way. Being right on the edge of the public road, he very well may have been. You’ll notice that there was a fence a little further off the road. Josh was nowhere near that fence. Josh credibly demonstrated to the police officer that he subjectively believed he was on a public right of way, and not trespassing onto a private owner’s land. Secondly, the police officer didn’t know one way or the other whether Josh was within a public right of way, or on private property. Moreover, even if Josh was on public property, the officer admittedly didn’t know who the owner was.
Therefore, there’s a great case to be made that Josh could not have violated Tennessee’s criminal trespassing statute. Even if he was on private property, there’s no evidence that he had the requisite criminal intent to commit trespassing. Additionally, the officer performed almost no investigation prior to his warrantless arrest. Surprisingly he didn’t even bother to request Josh’s ID first. He just arrested him.
A West Virginia Deputy has been indicted by the feds. It just hit the news a few days ago. I figured there must be body cam footage of the incident, so I sent a FOIA request to the employer. I was holding off on discussing the case until I saw the footage. I’ve now received a response, and you’re not going to like it. Here’s what we know right now. Monongalia County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Lance Kuretza has been indicted in federal court for a felony civil rights violation after allegedly punching and pepper spraying a handcuffed suspect, as well as for attempting to cover-it-up by filing a false police report.
The DOJ issued a press release. I went ahead and pulled the unsealed indictment off pacer. Unfortunately it doesn’t contain much in the way of details. I rightfully assumed there must be body cam footage. That has now been confirmed by the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia, who gave a media interview explaining that there was indeed body cam footage of this incident, and that it was key to their decision to indict the defendant officer. He gave some additional details that weren’t in the indictment:
“Once we saw the evidence and interviewed the witnesses we knew this case had to be charged.”
He also noted that the Monongalia County Prosecutor’s Office decided not to pursue state charges.
So, that means the body cam footage must be good – or rather, bad. In fact, he said, “The video really speaks for itself, there’s a lot of it and that’s why body cams are so important…” And if that’s the case, why did the state-level county prosecutor not file charges? That’s a rhetorical question, of course. As you’ll see, the county is now attempting to stop me from sharing this body cam footage with the public. They can give it to the feds, but not the citizens they represent.
As soon as I heard about the initial indictment, and saw the DOJ press release, I sent a FOIA request to the sheriff’s department. As of this morning, they responded, denying my request on the grounds that there’s a federal prosecution taking place. The problem is however, I didn’t FOIA the feds, but rather the county, who has decided not to prosecute. There’s an exception in our state FOIA statute where there’s still an open criminal investigation. But they don’t have one.
What’s happening here is that the county – Monongalia County Sheriff’s Office – is attempting to prevent the public from seeing the video, even though the U.S. Attorney prosecuting the federal indictment just discussed it on the radio. Here’s more of what he said:
Deputy Kuretza and six others responded to a disturbance at the Residence Inn Jan. 20, 2018. An investigation at the scene determined none of the suspects broke laws or would be arrested, but management asked they be escorted from the property.
As the group exited the floor, Kuretza ordered one of the guests to open the door to a nearby room where he found a man sleeping. Kuretza then allegedly began to shake the man and hit his feet to wake him up. When the guest explained he was sleeping, Kuretza threw him off the bed and beat him, investigators said. As the contact escalated, Kuretza restrained the guest as the six other officers were in the room.
“This particular victim had a flashlight in his face and thought it was his friends just messing around with him,” Ihlenfeld said. “It turned out it was a sheriff’s deputy and from there it really got out of control.”
Kuretza battered and used pepper spray on the victim while handcuffed. While the suspect was being taken out of the property Kuretza allegedly continued to use unnecessary force.
“The report that was filed after this did not indicate the pepper spray had been deployed after handcuffs were used, in fact it said pepper spray was deployed before handcuffs were used – which was not consistent with the video evidence we have.”
So I already responded to their denial of my FOIA request and am threatening to sue them for illegally denying my request. The public has a right to see this footage. The sheriff’s department can’t just suppress footage owned by the public. I will get the footage, and now I really want to see it. I pulled the actual indictment and I’ll post it up on the blog if you want to see it. Here’s what it charges:
The indictment contains two counts. The first is deprivation of rights under color of law. This alleges that Lance Kuretza, a Deputy Sheriff with the Monongalia County Sheriff’s Office, while acting under color of law, deprived the victim of his Fourth Amendment rights by engaging in an unreasonable, i.e., excessive, i.e., unnecessary and unjustified, use of force. Specifically, he punched the victim in the face, striking him, spraying him with pepper spray at a time after the victim had been handcuffed. It’s also alleged that he kneed the victim while escorting him. The indictment specifically alleges that this offense included the use of a dangerous weapon and resulted in bodily injury to the victim. Why was that last part alleged? As we’ve discussed before in these glorious cases, where those elements are present, the charge of deprivations under color of law transforms from a misdemeanor to a felony.
Count two alleges that, the following day, on January 21, 2018, Deputy Kuretza knowingly falsified and made a false entry in a record and document with the intent to impede, obstruct, and influence an investigation into his actions. Specifically, it alleges that Kuretza made false entries into a use of force report by falsely stating that he sprayed the victim with pepper spray before the victim was handcuffed, as well as by omitting that he sprayed the victim with pepper spray after the victim was handcuffed, and also omitting that he struck the victim after he was handcuffed.
If convicted, Kuretza faces up to 10 years in prison for the civil rights violation and up to 20 years in prison for falsifying the report.
There’s quite a bit of case law placing police officers on notice that it’s unreasonable excessive force to use tasers and pepper spray on handcuffed arrestees. The Fourth Amendment bars police officers from using excessive force to effectuate a seizure. Courts evaluate a claim of excessive force based on an “objective reasonableness” standard, taking into account “the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight. These are known as the Graham Factors. The Courts also look at the circumstances as of the moment force was deployed, with an eye toward the proportionality of the force in light of all the circumstances.
There’s already binding legal precedent in the Fourth Circuit, which is where West Virginia is located, that pepper spraying suspects in response to minimal, non-violent resistance is a Fourth Amendment violation. SeePark v. Shiflett (4th Circ. 2001). There’s quite a bit of case law denying correctional officers qualified immunity for using pepper spray unnecessarily, for the purpose of causing pain, or for retaliation, as well as for using it excessively.
There’s a big difference between pepper spraying an arrestee who is handcuffed and one who is not handcuffed. There’s also a difference between the use of pepper spray in a jail or prison context, and use against non-incarcerated individuals, where it’s much more likely to be considered excessive force by the Courts. Unfortunately, I can’t show you the body cam footage. But we now have confirmation that it exists. I may have to sue for it. But I’ll get it one way or the other. I’ll post the documents I have so far up on the blog at thecivilrightslawyer.com. I look forward to following this one and seeing what happens.
Today’s video is about Matthew Souter, who owns a farmhouse in The Plains, Virginia. He ended up being unlawfully arrested and tased by police officers in his front yard. Back in November of 2018. He rented a bedroom and bathroom in his home to Melissa Johnson. Following a dispute about her cat and an electric hotplate, she went to a local court and obtained an ex parte Emergency Protective Order (“EPO”) against Mr. Souter, which restricted him from “acts of violence, force, or threat of criminal offenses resulting in injury to person or property” of Johnson.
The next day, November 10, 2018, Johnson called the Fauquier County Sheriff’s Office and reported that Plaintiff had violated the EPO by terminating the electric and water service to her bedroom and bathroom. She spoke with a deputy who took her complaint and classified it as a “civil matter.” Not satisfied with that, she called again later the same day. This time she spoke with a different deputy, who was dangerously incompetent. He ended up applying for an arrest warrant against Mr. Souter, alleging a violation of the EPO. There in fact was no violation – nor any reason for him to believe that Mr. Souter had committed any crime. But, he obtained an arrest warrant.
This deputy and his supervisor then traveled to Mr. Souter’s home with an arrest warrant. The deputies seized Mr. Souter. I spoke with Mr. Souter on the phone and he denies resisting this arrest. However, in a subsequent ruling, the federal court wrote that it was undisputed that he resisted arrest. This is what the Court found, specifically: “Plaintiff resisted arrest and did not permit the officers to handcuff him. The officers then wrestled the Plaintiff to the ground, while Plaintiff continued to resist the officers. McCauley then used a taser to subdue the Plaintiff. After Plaintiff was tased, the officers were able to handcuff the Plaintiff.” Mr. Souter was tased multiple times and was bleeding. He was taken to a local hospital emergency room.
The officers subsequently charged Souter with the underlying EPO violation, as well as attempted fleeing from a law enforcement officer. The EPO charge ended up being dismissed by the prosecutor, and he was found not guilty of the fleeing charge following the criminal trial.
Then Souter filed a federal section 1983 civil lawsuit. Here’s the complaint his lawyer filed:
Fast forward in the litigation, and something pretty unusual ended up happening. The federal judge – Judge Ellis – in the Eastern District of Virginia, not only denied qualified immunity to the officers, but granted summary judgment in favor of the Plaintiff. That means that the Court found that Mr. Souter’s civil rights were violated, as a matter of law, and that the only issue for the jury to decide is the amount of money damages to be awarded.
Why did the officers lose qualified immunity, as well as the opportunity to even oppose liability in front of the jury? In short, because they acted such utter incompetence. The Fourth Amendment protects against citizens being unlawfully arrested by law enforcement. An unlawful arrest is one that occurs in the absence of probable cause. Police officers can be held civilly liable for a false arrest “if it would have been clear to reasonable officers in their position that they lacked probable cause to arrest” Plaintiff for violating the cited law. Graham v. Gagnon (4th Cir. 2016).
The officers aren’t required to be actually correct in their probable cause determination, but rather reasonable in their probable cause determination. Here’s the Court’s full opinion:
In this case, all the officers knew is the allegation that the Plaintiff had cut off Johnson’s water and electric service. There was no reasonable basis for them to conclude that the Plaintiff had engaged in any act of violence, force, or threat, against Johnson. Thus, if they believed Plaintiff had done any of those acts, such a belief would have been clearly erroneous and unreasonable.
The arrest warrant the officers obtained alleged violation of a domestic violence type of protective order, which did not exist in this case. No such domestic violence type of protective order had been issued against the Plaintiff, as would be obvious on the face of the actual EPO served on the Plaintiff. Moreover, even if Plaintiff had been served with a domestic violence protective order, cutting off water and electric do not constitute acts of violence, as defined in the EPO. Therefore, Plaintiff’s conduct could not have led a reasonable law enforcement officer to conclude that probable cause existed or that his arrest was proper. Thus they violated his constitutional rights when they unlawfully arrested him (and used force to effectuate that arrest) in the absence of probable cause.
The illegality of Plaintiff’s arrest taints the defendant officers’ subsequent actions and renders them liable for Plaintiff’s excessive force claims. Under federal law, “the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable seizures bars police officers from using excessive force to seize a free citizen.” Jones v. Buchanan (4th Cir. 2003).
Let’s fast forward to the trial results. The jury ended up awarding a total of $50,000.00 in compensatory damages to Mr. Souter. Here’s the jury verdict form:
In my phone conversation with Mr. Souter, he was actually very unhappy with the verdict, both in the amount of $50,000.00, as well as the lack of a punitive damages award. He took issue with how the presentation of the damages claim was presented to the jury at trial.
For many reasons, people many times have unrealistic expectations on the value of damages in civil rights cases. At the end of the day, a jury decides these things. This can vary wildly depending on a number of factors, including the personalities of the parties, as well as the jurors themselves. I wasn’t at this trial, so I really have no idea what dynamics were present in the courtroom. But this illustrates one of the difficult parts of the job of a civil rights lawyer. Ultimately you have to convince a jury to award money damages. How do you do that? It can be very difficult, and sometimes emotion is all you have, assuming you can instill it in the hearts of the jurors.
There’s a form instruction in section 1983 cases that says something to the effect of, if you find that the plaintiff’s civil rights were violated, you must at least award $1.00, even if you find that the plaintiff suffered no actual damages. The value of constitutional injuries can vary wildly based on who is on the jury. But there’s also a federal law, 42 U.S.C. Section 1988, which provides for an award of reasonable attorney fees following a finding of liability. That means that even if a jury awards One Dollar, there could potentially be an attorney fee award of six figures.