I had two separate federal civil rights lawsuits where excessive force incidents were captured on video by the exact same camera. One of them resulted in an epic legal drama, which established law still used today. In fact, this case is now discussed in two different law school text books on civil rights law. It was an amazing journey, and I spent several years in Parkersburg, West Virginia litigating these cases.
The first video was the “Sawyer” case. Here was my quote from the front page of the Charleston Gazette newspaper, back when the appellate decision was issued:
“Today the citizens of West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia North Carolina and South Carolina have more constitutional protections than they did yesterday,” John Bryan, Sawyer’s attorney, wrote in a statement.
“As a result of today’s ruling, which affirmed the District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, law enforcement officers will be taught to treat people differently, and that if they fail to do so, there will be consequences. Because of Brian Sawyer, and the federal court system, millions of people have more freedom. And that is something I am very proud of.”
Here is the order issued by the Southern District of West Virginia, throwing out the jury verdict, and finding as a matter of law, that the officer committed excessive force. I still haven’t heard of anything like this happening in any other case:
And here is the Fourth Circuit opinion affirming the order. Despite being labeled “unpublished,” as per the court rules, this opinion has now made its way into two different law school text books on civil rights law:
Here’s a long-overdue update on the James Dean case, out of Wayne County, West Virginia. If you’re wondering what has taken so long, the West Virginia Medical Examiner’s Office took over a year to issue the death certificate.
Here’s the original dash cam footage and audio from a case I handled a few years back that’s educational in several respects. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this footage, in my mind, is towards the end of the video, where you hear a state trooper come up to the deputy sheriff who had shot my client, and inform him that he was going to be the officer investigating the shooting, and basically told him to stop talking, and to go home and sleep on it first. Indeed, once he did so, the narrative changed from what can be heard in the video.
You hear the shooter tell his version of what had occurred three times at the scene. None of which suggested that the shooting was justified. Not surprisingly, the official written statement which comes out a few days later, is nothing like what he said three times at the scene. Instead, the shooter later claimed to have seen my client with a gun before he fired.
Here are the rounds which traveled through the door.
Also, you can see the boot print from where he kicked the door:
Since this was a police shooting of someone who was not yet in police custody, the legality of the use of force is judged using the Fourth Amendment, under the “Graham Factors.” Here are the actual jury instructions which were to be used at the jury trial:
Your verdict must be for the plaintiff (and against the defendant) for violation of the plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force if all the following elements have been proved:
First, the defendant shot the plaintiff through the front door of his home, and
Second, the force used was excessive because it was not reasonably necessary to shoot the plaintiff through his front door in order to interview the plaintiff, and
Third, the defendant was acting under color of state law.
In determining whether the force was “excessive,” you must consider: the need for the application of force; the relationship between the need and the amount of force that was used; the extent of the injury inflicted; and whether a reasonable officer on the scene, without the benefit of hindsight, would have used that much force under similar circumstances. You should keep in mind that the decision about how much force to use often must be made in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly changing.
Deadly force may be used only if it is reasonably believed necessary to prevent a significant threat of death or serious physical harm to the officer or others. A warning must be given, if possible, before deadly force may be used. You must decide whether the officer’s actions were reasonable in light of the facts and circumstances confronting the officer without regard to the officer’s own state of mind, intention or motivation. In making this determination, you may take into account the severity of the crime at issue, whether the plaintiff posed an immediate threat to the safety of the defendant or others, and whether the plaintiff actively resisted arrest or attempted to evade arrest by flight.
If any of the above elements has not been proved, then your verdict must be for the defendant. “Deadly force” is force intended or reasonably likely to cause death or serious physical injury.
This is essentially the same test which is used in criminal prosecutions of police officers for excessive force violations – i.e., Breonna Taylor, and so on. There never was a criminal charge against this particular officer. The West Virginia State Police performed the official investigation and found that the shooting was justified. Thus, our lawsuit was the only litigation connected to it. Ultimately, we settled the case – only days before trial.
Yesterday afternoon we filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the police officers involved in the viral video showing police (without a warrant) forcing my client, James Walkup, to crawl to his own front door, only to have his head smashed with a boot on his front porch. If you haven’t seen the video, here it is:
This happened in the Western end of Greenbrier County, West Virginia. And here’s the filed lawsuit, now pending in the Beckley Division of the Southern District of West Virginia. We made claims for unlawful search and seizure, as well as use of excessive force. The defendants are one Rainelle, WV police officer and two West Virginia State Troopers.
The Civil Rights Lawyer explains how and when a citizen can sue the police for excessive force under federal civil rights law. It seems that everyone has an opinion on police use of force in recent months. In this video, I’ll explain the law of excessive force, which dictates when a justified use of force becomes an unlawful use of force and a federal civil rights violation. This has been my primary practice area the past decade or so, so I’ll point out some of the practical lessons I’ve learned along the way.
LIVE AT 12:05 today: The Civil Rights Lawyer explains “Qualified Immunity” which is widely misunderstood in the media, on social media, and in courtrooms. What is “Qualified Immunity? In this video, I’ll explain how to strip an officer of Qualified Immunity in three easy steps. Or maybe not so easy, depending on the type of case.
Qualified Immunity has been the subject of intense debate in recent years, and especially in recent months. Many commentators have criticized it as an example of the Court creating legislation from the bench, and in so doing having created a significant problem for citizens seeking to hold their government officials accountable for the violations of their civil rights.
Yesterday afternoon, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals clerk’s office released the Formal Statement of Charges against Raleigh County, West Virginia Family Court Judge Louise E. Goldston – a 26 year Family Court judge. This is the judge caught on video searching the home of my client, Matt Gibson – threatening him with arrest if he didn’t allow her in. Here’s the post with the original video, as well as the update video, if you haven’t seen it. The charges state that on March 11, 2020, investigators opened a complaint, and that a subsequently second complaint was filed by my client, Matt Gibson.
For reference, I originally uploaded the video of the judge searching Matt’s property on March 10 – the day before the inception of the opening of the investigation. The video quickly went viral, and by the next day an investigation had essentially opened itself. In other words, the power of Youtube is great. In one day, it found its way into the eyeballs of the Judicial Investigation Commission, the only folks with the power to lodge judicial disciplinary charges against judges in West Virginia.
The Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia established the Judicial Investigation Commission to determine whether probable cause exists to formally charge a judge with a violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct, to govern the ethical conduct of judges and to determine if a judge, because of advancing years and attendant physical and mental incapacity, should not continue to serve.
If you want to report what you believe is judicial misconduct, or a civil rights violations committed by a judge, anyone can file a complaint with the JIC. Here’s the complaint form.
Any person may file an ethics complaint against a judge. However, a complaint that is filed more than two (2) years after the complainant knew, or in the exercise of reasonable diligence should have known, of the existence of a violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct may be dismissed for exceeding the statute of limitations.
Then, even though covid hit, the investigation apparently proceeded, and 6 months later the charges dropped (which was yesterday, 10/2/20). I just happened to be traveling when the charges came out, so it wasn’t really until this morning that I was able to digest them.The Formal Statement of Charges alleges that:
FAMILY COURT JUDGE GOLDSTON violated Rule 1.1 (compliance with the law), Rule 1.2 (confidence in the judiciary), Rule 1.3 (avoiding abuse of prestige of office), Rule 2.2 (impartiality and fairness), Rule 2.4(B) (external influences), Rule 2.5 (competence, diligence and cooperation) and Rule 3.1(A), (B), (D) (extrajudicial activities in general) of the Code of Judicial Conduct….
In other words, the JIC concluded that the judge failed to comply with the law, committed actions which undermines confidence in the judiciary,abused the prestige of her office, was impartial and unfair, allowed external influences on her actions, was incompetent, un-diligent (is that a word?) and uncooperative, and engaged in extrajudicial activities. According to the charges, these home “visits” (searches) have been going on “over the past twenty years.”
Over the past twenty years as a Family Court Judge, Respondent has been engaging in the practice of visiting homes of litigants appearing in front of her. Respondent went to the litigants’ homes to either determine if certain disputed marital property was present and/or to supervise the transfer of disputed property. Respondent admitted to conducting these home visits in her capacity as a Family Court Judge on eleven separate occasions in different cases.
In every instance except Mr. Gibson’s case, all of Respondent’s home visits were prompted by a motion by a litigant’s attorney and not objected to by the opposing party and will full knowledge of the purpose therein. Most of the Respondent’s home visits occurred during a court hearing in the case. A party’s attorney would move the Court to leave directly from the bench and accompany the parties to the home. After granting the motion, Respondent would meet the parties at the home.
The JIC interviewed the judge and asked her what authority she had to engage in this practice:
On July 22, 2020, Judicial Disciplinary Counsel took Respondent’s sworn statement. Respondent admitted that she failed to inform Mr. Gibson of the purpose of the home visit while the parties were in the courtroom and that she did not give him any opportunity to object thereto until everyone was at his house.
Respondent opined that she believed it was proper to visit litigants’ homes. Respondent likened the practice to a jury view or similar continuation of the court proceeding and stated that as a finder of fact it was necessary to determine whether a party could be held in contempt for not turning over personal property as previously ordered by the Court.
When asked, Respondent could provide no statute, rule or case that gave her the authority to conduct home visits. Respondent also acknowledged that there was nothing in the contempt powers that gave her the authority to conduct a home visit. Respondent confessed that she never held anyone in contempt prior to going to the home and that she failed to enter any order subsequent to the visit reflecting what had happened at the residence, whether any items had been secured and/or whether or not a party was in contempt.
I was absolutely correct when I first reviewed the video. There was no legal basis upon which a judge could search a home as was portrayed in the video. The fact that this judge had been doing it for the past 20 years, was not itself justification. Instead, this sobering fact proves that many former Family Court litigants are absolutely correct when they rant about corruption and unlawfulness. Over the past 20 years, at least 10 other victims have been subjected to this in this judge’s “courtroom,” subjected to unlawful “home visits” upon the motion of an attorney, and without objection from any other attorney.
I wonder how many of these visits involved this one particular attorney involved in this video? After all, it was this attorney who left a voice message for Mr. Gibson the night before the search, offering $5,000 in exchange for foregoing what would essentially be a Family Court anal probing:
This whole thing reeks to me, and sounds a lot like a “pay to play” style judicial experience. Had he paid 5 grand, he could have avoided being lucky number 11? Time will tell, hopefully. Roots run deep in a 20 year period inside one particular court. Perhaps this had something to do with a local Family Court attorney going on TV following my initial TV appearance with my client, to say that I was wrong, and that “home visits” were a perfectly legal Family Court practice. Yeah, okay…..
BECKLEY, WV (WOAY) – UPDATE: On Thursday, we ran a story about a Raleigh County man involved in a contempt case after a finalized divorce whose recording of a family court judge went viral. Matt Gibson claimed the search of his home was against his 4th Amendment rights. Because the judge and the opposing attorney cannot comment on ongoing litigation, local family attorney [let’s call him JOHN DOE] is speaking out saying Judge Louise Goldston was doing her job and doing it legally.
“What I think is most important to know about this is when you see a video on YouTube, when you see a Terry search, when you see something and immediately it doesn’t match what we’ve always seen on television that doesn’t make it wrong,” he said. “Because they didn’t do it that way on Law and Order doesn’t mean that a judge that has decades of experience is breaking the law.”
It looks like I was right, and he was wrong. So, he said the judge wasn’t allowed to respond, so he was responding on her behalf? Why is that, I wonder? That’s a rhetorical question, of course. Is he saying that she asked him to respond and defend her publicly? Another good point that the JIC makes in the statement of charges, is that if the judge, and her local family court lawyers, are going to characterize her actions as a lawful component of a judicial proceeding, then they have some issues to consider:
Respondent admitted that she never had any clear or written procedures for conducting a home visit, including but not limited to, when the proceeding should be utilized and how the process should take place. She also acknowledged that she never took a court reporter to the scene.
Upon reflection, Respondent agreed that the practice could make her a potential witness to a future proceeding which could then result in her disqualification. Respondent further agreed that family court judges run the risk of disqualification if he/she were to become a witness in a subsequent proceeding pertaining thereto.
Respondent also agreed that the burden of proof in a contempt proceeding rests not with the Family Court Judge but with the moving party. She agreed that it is the moving party’s responsibility to provide evidence in support of his/her contention that the other side has failed to produce the items in question. Respondent admitted to improperly putting herself into the role of litigant.
Like I said during the TV interview, the reason I’ve never heard people complain about having their homes searched by judges before, is because that’s not what judge do – judges don’t search homes. This judge was acting in the role of a litigant. So it was basically like Trump debating both Biden and Chris Wallace in the first presidential debate. That’s not how it’s supposed to work. The opposing attorney is supposed to submit evidence and prove his case. Here you had a judge doing both of these things, and then engaging in an unlawful search of one party’s home, on behalf of the other party. Why? That’s yet another rhetorical question of course. If the other 10 victims were represented by lawyers, why didn’t they object?
And then there’s the 800 pound gorilla in the room: the Sheriff’s Department assisting the judge in these actions. On how many of these 10 other searches were they present? The statement of charges also notes that the bailiff (a sheriff’s deputy) forced Mr. Gibson to stop his recording, and that he himself started to record what happened inside the home:
Upon Respondent’s arrival at Mr. Gibson’s property, Mr. Gibson had a bystander video record the initial interactions outside the house between Respondent and the parties. Mr. Gibson also secretly recorded several minutes of audio of the initial interaction on his cell phone.
When the video and audio recording were discovered by Respondent, she ordered both recordings stopped. However, once inside the house, Respondent’s bailiff used his phone to record both video and audio of the separation of marital assets.
Where is this video, and why hasn’t it been produced? I heard through the grapevine, that following my initial uploading of the Youtube video, that the Sheriff of that county sent around a memo to the effect of, “no more going anywhere with a judge….” Of course, the JIC doesn’t investigate law enforcement, nor discipline them. You might find this shocking, but there is no state agency or commission which investigates law enforcement officers in the way that judges, and even lawyers, are investigated (there’s a pending disciplinary complaint against the lawyer who was involved here as well).
The only consistent investigator of law enforcement misconduct in West Virginia is me, sadly. Those who were involved in the search of my client’s house will be explaining their actions. I can’t put people in jail, nor discipline them, so we’ve pretty much come full circle. I have to demand money damages for my client, and they’ll have the opportunity to avoid what’s coming their way. It ain’t pretty, but that’s the relief available. Unless someone wants to deputize me as a special federal prosecutor or something…..
UPDATE, and Part 2, to one of the craziest search and seizure cases I’ve ever seen, or personally been involved with: The West Virginia Family Court judge who’s searched the home of a federal law enforcement officer, looking for his ex-wife’s DVDs and other stuff, a year and a half after they divorced….. and got caught by YouTube.
Another UPDATE 10/2/20: The judge has been charged. The Statement of Charges was just released this afternoon:
“No Knocks” are in the news following the Breonna Taylor shooting case. What is a “No Knock” warrant and when/how are they legal under federal constitutional law? One of my favorite topics. By favorite I mean that if I was a middle eastern dictator they would flow freely. This has been in the news now following the Breonna Taylor case. I’ll offer some analysis on that case, and also answer other civil rights constitutional law questions, if you have any – since this is LIVE.
Podcast version (audio only):
"No Knock" Warrants and Civil Rights Q&A – FIS Live Ep. 16 – thecivilrightslawyer.com –
Freedom is Scary
"No Knocks" are in the news following the Breonna Taylor shooting case. What is a "No Knock" warrant and when/how are they legal under federal constitutional law? One of my favorite topics. By favorite I mean that if I was a middle eastern dictator they would flow freely. This has been in the news now following the Breonna Taylor case. I'll offer some analysis on that case, and also answer other civil rights constitutional law questions, if you have any – since this is LIVE.This is the FREEDOM IS SCARY livecast Episode 16. Please join me. It seems to be happening every Monday evening……thecivilrightslawyer.com
Searches and Seizures in the Home and No-Knock Warrants, i.e., the “Knock and Announce” Requirement, Generally:
In the Home: No Warrant? Presumptively Illegal: Searches and seizures which take place in a person’s home are presumptively unreasonable, which means they are illegal by default according to the Fourth Amendment. On the other hand, outside a person’s home, Fourth Amendment protections only apply where there is a “reasonable expectation of privacy.”
Outside the Home: No Warrant? No Need unless REP: To the contrary, the U.S. Supreme Court has found that no presumption exists outside the home, because a person does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy for most “places” outside one’s own home. These unprotected “places” include bank accounts, curbside trash, “open fields,” surrounding one’s home, and so on.
Search of home with a warrant: presumptively legal: So since the inverse is true, all searches of a home, made pursuant to a warrant are presumptively reasonable. The standard for a warrant requires only that “there is a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found in a particular place.” It is still a requirement, obviously, that police officers tell the truth when they make their search warrant applications. If it is discovered that false information was intentionally provided to the magistrate, the warrant will be fraudulent, and therefore ineffective. At which point, we’re back to the search being presumptively unreasonable. During the execution of a lawfully-obtained search warrant, officers may temporarily seize the inhabitants of the structure being searched, including handcuffing them.
There is a default “knock and announce” requirement under the Constitution, though it frequently is ignored. Can officers make, or apply, for a no knock entry just b/c the homeowner has a CCW? Check out the 4th Circuit case out of West Virginia, Bellotte v. Edwards (4th Cir. 2011), authored by Judge Wilkinson. Judge Gregory was also on the panel:
The knock-and-announce requirement has long been a fixture in law. Gould v. Davis, 165 F.3d 265, 270 (4th Cir. 1998). Before forcibly entering a residence, police officers “must knock on the door and announce their identity and purpose.” Richards v. Wisconsin, 520 U.S. 385, 387 (1997)….
“In order to justify a ‘no-knock’ entry, the police must have a reasonable suspicion that knocking and announcing their presence, under the particular circumstances, would be dangerous or futile, or that it would inhibit the effective investigation of the crime by, for example, allowing the destruction of evidence.” Richards, 520 U.S. at 394. The Supreme Court has admonished that “it is the duty of a court confronted with the question to determine whether the facts and circumstances of the particular entry justified dispensing with the knock-and-announce requirement.” Id. We have thus required a particularized basis for any suspicion that would justify a no-knock entry. See United States v. Dunnock, 295 F.3d 431, 434 (4th Cir. 2002)…..
Of course, the absence of a no-knock warrant “should not be interpreted to remove the officers’ authority to exercise independent judgment concerning the wisdom of a no-knock entry at the time the warrant is being executed.” Richards, 520 U.S. at 396 n.7. But where, as here, the officers faced no barrier at all to seeking no-knock authorization at the time they obtained a warrant, “a strong preference for warrants” leads us to view their choice not to seek no-knock authorization with some skepticism. United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897, 914 (1984)….
To permit a no-knock entry on facts this paltry would be to regularize the practice. Our cases allow officers the latitude to effect dynamic entries when their safety is at stake, but the Fourth Amendment does not regard as reasonable an entry with echoes, however faint, of the totalitarian state…..
It should go without saying that carrying a concealed weapon pursuant to a valid concealed carry permit is a lawful act.The officers admitted at oral argument, moreover, that “most people in West Virginia have guns.” Most importantly, we have earlier rejected this contention: “If the officers are correct, then the knock and announcement requirement would never apply in the search of anyone’s home who legally owned a firearm.” Gould, 165 F.3d at 272; accord United States v. Smith, 386 F.3d 753, 760 (6th Cir. 2004); United States v. Marts, 986 F.2d 1216, 1218 (8th Cir. 1993). We recognized over a decade ago that “[t]his clearly was not and is not the law, and no reasonable officer could have believed it to be so.” Gould, 165 F.3d at 272.