Home video cameras are certainly handy at catching law enforcement violating your constitutional rights. Check out those prior videos if you want to hear me discuss the constitutional rights at play in those incidents. But did you know that the government is also actively using them as well? Do you have a Ring doorbell? How is the footage stored? Can the police obtain that footage against your will, even if you’ve done nothing wrong? What if I told you that Ring just might provide stored footage from cameras inside and around your home to police, even without your consent?
A guy named Michael Larkin was featured in a Politico article. His story exemplify what can happen to you if you use Ring doorbells. He’s a business owner in Hamilton, Ohio, and has a Ring doorbell camera and 20 other Ring cameras in and around his home and business. Five of those cameras surround his house, which record in 5 to 15 second bursts whenever they’re activated. He also has three cameras inside his house, as well as 13 cameras inside the store that he owns. All of these cameras are connected to his Ring account. Ring, the company, stores this footage on their servers for up to 180 days. He thought his footage was his own private footage. But he thought wrong.
Check out this brand new footage from Cabot, Arkansas – yet another Walmart video – submitted to me by this man’s lawyer. Walmart calls the cops and reports a non-crime. Usually they do this without ever asking the individual to leave; they just call the cops. Then the cops show up and likewise don’t ask the person to leave, but instead, they demand an ID in the absence of any legitimate suspicion of criminal behavior.
So no crime has been committed, but the person gets detained. As I’ve explained numerous times, what is required for police to detain someone against their will? Is it enough that a Walmart employee doesn’t like the way you look, or something about you? No. Police must have reasonable suspicion to detain you. When you are forced to stop and talk to them and provide ID, that’s a detainment. Reasonable suspicion is required.
February 13, 2023, Jacob Jackson is walking down a public sidewalk in Beckley, West Virginia. A uniformed sheriff’s deputy pulls up in a marked police cruiser and activates his emergency lights. The reason? He has civil service papers to serve related to an eviction proceeding. Jacob asserts his rights. The deputy asserts what he believes to be his rights as a police officer. Can a police officer forcibly detain you, ID you, search you, put his hands on you, just because he has civil paperwork to serve on someone? Even if you’ve done nothing illegal?
Jacob brought me his cell phone video. I then obtained the body cam footage via a FOIA request from the Raleigh County Sheriff’s Department.
When police officers encounter pedestrians, they could trigger an investigatory detention, which requires reasonable suspicion, or they could just be engaged in a consensual encounter, which requires nothing. It’s just a conversation.
Consensual encounters, i.e., a conversation, does not trigger the Fourth Amendment, and can be easily identified if the subject asks whether or not he’s free to leave. If the question isn’t asked, courts will look to the circumstances. Would a reasonable, regular person believe that he was NOT free to leave? Were emergency lights activated? Multiple police officers? Guns drawn? Put in handcuffs? Accused of criminal conduct? Told to show your hands? Told to get on the ground? Or was it just a conversation.
The question is whether a reasonable person would feel free to terminate the encounter. If the person was involuntarily detained by the officer, that constitutes a seizure under the Fourth Amendment, no matter how brief the detention or how limited its purpose.
If a detention occurs, the courts require the detaining officer to be able to articulate why a particular behavior is suspicious or logically demonstrate that the person’s behavior is indicative of some sinister criminal activity. It must be based on suspicion of illegal conduct. In other words, it cannot be based on suspicion of legal conduct, such as walking down a public sidewalk, or even being a defendant in a civil lawsuit – even an eviction proceeding. Anyone can serve lawsuit paperwork: a private investigator, a rando off the street – anyone. Just doing that does not entitle any individual to detain or arrest the target of the civil service.
This video demonstrated that Jacob Jackson was not suspected of having committed any crime. The officer had no right to involuntarily detain him. He had no right to do anything but engage in a consensual encounter with Mr. Jackson. Due to the fact that Mr. Jackson asserted his rights, there’s no doubt that the officer detained him and thereby triggered the Fourth Amendment. Given the fact that there was no allegation or suspicion of illegal conduct, reasonable suspicion did not exist, and therefore the Fourth Amendment was violated – no matter how brief the detention was, and no matter how badly the officer, or some litigant, wanted Mr. Jackson to be served with the paperwork.
Imagine it’s winter time. You’re at home in Erie, Pennsylvania. There’s snow everywhere. Your Ring Doorbell alerts you to movement at your front door. It’s a SWAT team. They grab your doorbell camera and chuck it into the snow and then start to bust down your door. You’ve done nothing wrong. You’ve broken no law. You have no idea why they’re there. And neither do they apparently. What do you do? What is the law?
It was March 12, 2023.Officers approach the house and notice the Ring doorbell and then they remove or destroy it. The homeowner got to the front door and confronted the officers. They told him to come outside, which he did.
Sadly, Lance, who submitted the footage, has early onset dementia. He explained this to the officers. He decided to take out his cell phone and begin filming their interaction – for his safety and theirs, of course. That’s when Lance’s cell phone footage begins. The cops absolutely did not want to be filmed, even though they were on Lance’s property, without a search warrant and without probable cause, or even reasonable suspicion, to believe that Lance had committed any crime at all.
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. The only exceptions are consent and exigent circumstances. Here, the officers had no search warrant for this house. It also appears that they had no legitimate reason to believe that the fugitive they were looking for was inside the house.
According to their own words, they received an anonymous tip that the fugitive could be inside the home. In reality, the fugitive had no connection whatsoever to the home. Anonymous tips cannot form the basis of probable cause. Which is why they didn’t have a warrant. They should have investigated the anonymous tip, in which case the officers would have discovered that it was not credible. Instead, they just got the boys together, rolled up on the house, destroyed private property and then commenced an illegal search.
While the homeowner gave the officers consent to go inside the house, he subsequently revoked that consent after finding out that the officers were acting off a bogus anonymous tip. Moreover, they had already invaded the curtilage of the home and destroyed private property prior to obtaining that consent. They had no legal justification to do so and therein violated the Fourth Amendment.
Lance is looking to file a lawsuit, if any Pennsylvania lawyers are interested in helping him.
UPDATE: Since I made the video on this, Lance found out that the officers had first applied for a search warrant, based on the anonymous tip. That warrant was apparently denied by a judge as lacking probable cause. Then the officers showed up anyways. In the end, they were apparently at the wrong house. Not surprisingly…. Lance’s home had no connection to the fugitive they were looking for.
The biggest police scandal in the country right now is going down in West Virginia – and almost nobody even knows about it. It hasn’t made national news yet. One reporter in West Virginia exposed it and things have escalated. This is another one of those cases where this Youtube channel has inadvertently helped to expose government misconduct. This goes to show what an absolute necessity free speech is to our freedom.
A couple weeks ago I released an anonymous whistleblower letter from a state trooper, making specific allegations against the top leadership. I had no idea this would happen, but apparently that kicked off what is essentially a civil war inside the West Virginia State Police that seems to have been brewing. Since my first video on this with the whistleblower’s allegations, that whistleblower has been arrested. His lawyer is alleging a coverup conspiracy going all the way to the top of the state police.
Now, more breaking news, as of last night it was revealed that the Governor has ordered the seizure of the cell phones and electronic data of almost all the top leadership at the state police. Crazy, crazy stuff. This is big. People should know about this, because the implications are enormous.
On February 17, I posted a video with breaking news about the scandal at the West Virginia State Police, publishing for the first time the salacious details being alleged. I’ll link that video in the description, as well as the link to the letter itself.
Here’s my original video:
The initial version of that video title included the allegation that the head of the state police had been terminated. Within hours of the posting of that video, I was contacted by his attorney and told that he had in fact not been terminated, demanding a correction, which I did. It apparently started to snowball from there. I started getting all sorts of contacts from current and retired law enforcement officers with messages of support, as well as additional information.
Then I started getting additional anonymous letters. I didn’t publish any of those and I don’t intend to at this point. Instead, not really wanting to be within the middle of a law enforcement civil war, I provided those letters to the appropriate authorities. Maybe the time will come that that will happen. One of those letters, however, made reverse accusations against the trooper later disclosed to be the alleged whistleblower, Joey Comer. That was the first time I heard his name; never talked to the guy. He’s not the one who gave me the letter.
But I did start to hear through my contacts that the whistleblower, or whistleblowers – because it seemed to me that it was more than one individual, from the amount of information provided – were worried that retaliation was coming.
Then, sure enough, on February 24, 2023, the leadership at the WVSP issued a press release announcing that the alleged whistleblower, Joseph Comer, a current member of the West Virginia State Police, was arrested and charged with domestic battery and felony strangulation.
Okay, wow. So they arrested the whistleblower. But there’s more….
Then, on the same day, February 24, 2023 the attorney for the alleged whistleblower gives an interview to the media alleging that the arrest was in retaliation because he was the suspected whistleblower. Before we get to the allegations against Comer, let’s look at the timing. He was arrested the day before he was scheduled to testify at a hearing in front of an administrative law judge about “corruption that was going on” within the state police. Comer’s lawyer said that the “top brass” of the state police had been subpoenaed to testify at that hearing, where they had intended to expose their misconduct through evidence in their possession.
So this hearing is set to take place Friday morning. Thursday afternoon at 4:12 p.m., an attorney for the state police filed a motion seeking to prevent the agency’s top staff from having to testify and be subjected to questioning. Then at 11 p.m. Thursday night, the whistleblower received a call from other state troopers telling him they were coming to his home to pick up his gun and his badge because there had been a domestic violence protection order filed against him.
Comer’s lawyer said that the head of the state police had traveled to the vicinity where his client worked as a trooper and told several people that he knew who the whistleblower was, and that he had a hearing on Friday morning, and that he was going to “take care of him.”
The underlying allegations that they arrested the alleged whistleblower on were domestic violence in nature. According to a criminal complaint filed in Ritchie County Magistrate Court, on Dec. 5, in the gravel parking lot of the Sleep Inn in Ellenboro, Comer grabbed a woman around her neck during a scheduled child custody exchange. The woman reported that she had bruises on both sides of her neck. The alleged incident resulted in the strangulation charge, a felony. The second criminal complaint alleges that on Dec. 12, 2022, in the gravel parking lot of the Sleep Inn in Ellenboro, a woman said she was struck in the head with a sippy cup that Comer threw at her during a scheduled child custody exchange. The woman told troopers that the incident left her with a black eye, according to the court documents. The records do not indicate if the woman who reported both alleged incidents is the same person, but sources say the alleged victim, who is also a trooper, shares a child with Comer. One of the anonymous letters I received said something to this effect.
One of the important constitutional issues that the Institute for Justice is currently litigating is the ability to sue the government when they file criminal charges against someone in retaliation for their protected speech. There’s some bad law out there saying that, if probable cause exists, no matter the bad motive, you can’t sue them for First Amendment retaliation. Even if it was.
Here, there’s a similar concern. Certainly the state police didn’t create the allegations whole-cloth. But let’s look at the dates. One of the incidents is alleged to have occurred on December 5; the other on December 12. Yet they didn’t charge him until February 24 – the day before the hearing at which he was set to expose corruption among the state police leadership. Moreover, the alleged victim of those incidents is herself a state trooper. I would agree with Comer’s lawyer, that just doesn’t even pass the laugh test.
I was told that more was coming out. Well, last night it did. Last night a third media report came out and it’s a bombshell. I had been hearing that this was occurring, but now it’s verified. Last week, the main headquarters of the West Virginia State Police was searched by the Department of Homeland Security. That’s the state-level DHS. This was done at the order of the Governor. Here’s the actual order from the Governor, ordering:
Cahill, the head of the state police, was directed by the Governor to grant any and all necessary access to systems or data that was requested.
The media outlet obtained one of those duty logs and posted in their story on their website. They’ve since deleted the screenshot, but I saved it. It’s a duty log entry from Sgt. B.L. Keefer addressing the search and attempted apprehension of Comer when the warrant was issued for his arrest on Feb. 23.
In the duty log entry, Keefer wrote that he was called at home to contact/locate Comer and “relay him to WVSP Parkersburg, under the premise of him being served with a DVP.” Keefer wrote that he spent several hours searching for Comer and learned that “senior staff was attempting to ‘ping’ his cell phone and utilize LPRs in searching for Cpl. Comer’s whereabouts.” The log entry indicated “WVSP senior staffers” had discussed calling out additional manpower.
The sergeant wrote that he had been advised Comer had a hearing the next morning at State Police headquarters, where he could be “easily served at that time, with his legal counsel present.” “Additionally, this sergeant, still under the assumption that his search was still centered around a DVP service, believed that the orders originating at WVSP HQ were definitely overkill based on the very small bit of information he had been previously provided,” Keefer wrote. Despite all of this, Keefer said he continued searching for Comer in very desolate areas of Jackson County, near Comer’s home. Keefer said he was not able to locate Comer but learned the next morning that there were actually felony and misdemeanor warrants issued for his arrest, along with the DVP.
“This sergeant is now strongly questioning the decision by the WVSP senior staff in not informing the sole member they sent to locate Corporal Comer, and not informing this sergeant of the felony and misdemeanor warrants, that were most assuredly in effect at the time of the search,” the entry stated. “This sergeant has since learned that the WVSP senior staff has taken the position that they were afraid that Corporal Comer was a ‘threat’ that needed immediate attention, but failed to inform the very member that they ordered to ‘bring him in.'”
Keefer went on to question why, if Comer was considered a threat, he was not provided with the information as part of officer safety protocols. “If Corporal Comer had truly been a ‘threat,’ and any information had leaked to him from the ‘victim’ or any other person who had information that this sergeant most certainly was not provided, then that placed this officer at an undue risk, and that is inexcusable,” Keefer wrote. Keefer ended the entry by writing, “This sergeant is making this note on the duty log as an abridged history, and record, of this event, as the current WVSP administration efficacy and trustworthiness is called into question.”
So, it sounds like the trooper they sent to arrest the alleged whistleblower, is now himself blowing the whistle, implying that the arrest was political and corrupt and in retaliation against Comer. If this is the case, it appears that the evidence has now been seized. Are they going to find communications between the state police leadership and others about locating and arresting the alleged whistleblower either in retaliation for what he disclosed, or to prevent him from testifying at the hearing the following day? I’d love to read through those text messages and emails. How much do you want to bet there are communications about yours truly? Maybe I’ll get to find out eventually.
One thing people have already asked me: did they need warrants to seize evidence from the senior state police staff? In general, I can answer that. I once had a case where we sued a sheriff for placing a GPS tracker on a deputy’s cruiser without a warrant, and then using that data to indict him on numerous felonies. The result in that case was that the federal court said that since the agency owned the cruiser, and the investigation was technically employment related, that no warrant was needed. I suspect the present situation would fall within those same parameters and therefore no warrant is necessary.
The state Department of Homeland Security is currently investigating the matter and is expected to conclude no later than April. If you have information you want to provide, you can find my contact information at thecivilrightslawyer.com, where I will also post links to the stories I discussed in this video.
This issue is important because the major problem with policing in America, in my opinion, is the lack of accountability. Here in West Virginia, when politicians, or judges, or lawyers get investigated and are found to have engaged in misconduct, that becomes public record. The public can see the reports; the conclusions. Law enforcement? Not so much. They have been able to successfully seal their employment records under the guise of employee privacy. In reality, they are our employees, and we should know about any substantiated misconduct.
One of the excessive force cases we’ve been following just settled, and you may or may not be surprised at the settlement amount. This is the one in Kentucky where a man was arrested inside his parents’ home and was beaten – not terribly – but still beaten, by two Kentucky State Troopers. Then the dad goes to get his cell phone and starts filming. The troopers then took the phone and deleted the footage. Well, as sometimes happens, the parents had interior surveillance cameras that the cops did not know about. My buddy Chris Wiest files a lawsuit against them; puts them under oath at their depositions, and asks them about it. Both troopers denied striking the guy. Unfortunately for them, they had been caught on camera.
On April 9, 2020, Kentucky State Troopers James Cameron Wright, Thomas Czartorski, and a third trooper, Kevin Dreisbach, went to the Hornbacks’ home in Shepherdsville, Kentucky, to arrest 29-year-old Alex Hornback for a missed appearance in Jefferson District Court. Hornback’s mother and father met them at the door and led Wright and Czartorski to the basement, where their son was, while Dreisbach covered the rear of the house.
Czartorski and Wright testified in their January 2021 depositions that they had a relatively calm interaction with Hornback, despite taking him to the floor, and that they didn’t use any other force or strike him.The Hornbacks’ lawyer later released a home-security video contradicting the troopers’ statements. The video showed Wright grabbing Hornback around the neck and slinging him to the floor, though Hornback was not visibly resisting. The video also showed Czartorski striking Hornback four times on the legs with his flashlight. Wright hit Hornback twice in the back with his right forearm and appeared to have his left knee on Hornback’s neck, pushing his face into the floor. Hornback did not suffer any serious injuries.
In the past couple of days, WCHS has been reporting about an anonymous whistleblower letter from someone within the West Virginia State Police, revealing numerous specific allegations of misconduct, mostly by senior staff at the agency. I just obtained a copy of that letter and it’s unbelievable.
Do you remember this case – this video I posted about a few months back – about whether there’s a constitutional right to “livestream” encounters with police officers? Well there’s a huge update from that case that you’re not going to want to miss, or rather misunderstand. As I explained in the prior video, livestream video removes the ability of dishonest cops to destroy evidence and conceal their misconduct. That’s a good thing for us. But not surprisingly, they don’t like that. So, they attempted to find a way around it. “Officer safety.”
Here’s the original video:
Then you had this traffic stop involving Dijon Sharpe in Winterville, North Carolina, which then turned into a federal civil rights lawsuit. As discussed in the first video, that case was lost at the trial court level, and appeared to have backfired against the plaintiff, and in favor of government. Well now that has changed.
Last week the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the trial court’s ruling and confirmed that we indeed have a First Amendment right to livestream police officers, including as an occupant of a vehicle during a traffic stop. But, as government likes to remind us, it’s not absolute. The government could still infringe on those rights under certain facts.
My favorite excerpts from the opinion:
Creating and disseminating information is protected speech under the First Amendment. Sorrell v. IMS Health Inc., 564 U.S. 552, 570 (2011). “‘[A] major purpose of’ the First Amendment ‘was to protect the free discussion of governmental affairs.’” Ariz. Free Enter. Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett, 564 U.S. 721, 755 (2011) (quoting Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 14 (1976) (per curiam)).
And other courts have routinely recognized these principles extend the First Amendment to cover recording—particularly when the information involves matters of public interest like police encounters. See, e.g., Ness v. City of Bloomington, 11 F.4th 914, 923 (8th Cir. 2021) (“The act of . . . recording videos [is] entitled to First Amendment protection because [it is] an important stage of the speech process that ends with the dissemination of information about a public controversy.”).
We agree. Recording police encounters creates information that contributes to discussion about governmental affairs. So too does livestreaming disseminate that information, often creating its own record. We thus hold that livestreaming a police traffic stop is speech protected by the First Amendment….
The Town purports to justify the policy based on officer safety. [Appellees’ Response Brief at 55.] According to Defendants, livestreaming a traffic stop endangers officers because viewers can locate the officers and intervene in the encounter. [J.A. 9.] They support this claim by arguing, with help from amici, that violence against police officers has been increasing—including planned violence that uses new technologies. [See, e.g., Amicus Brief of the Southern States Police Benevolent Association at 9.] On Defendants’ view, banning livestreaming prevents attacks or related disruptions that threaten officer safety.
Despite the government’s claims, the Court found that the government had not established a sufficient specific officer safety issue due to traffic stop occupants engaged in this constitutionally protected activity. However, the Court left open the possibility that the government could do so.
Unfortunately, the opinion granted qualified immunity to the individual officers in the lawsuit, finding that since this was the first opinion confirming this specific constitutional right, that the right was not clearly established, and that therefore the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.
The important part is however, that from this point on, police officers are on notice, whether they choose to be ignorant or not, that livestreaming is constitutionally protected under the First Amendment. So in the end, the case did not actually backfire. It worked. The process worked. And although these individual officers will not be held accountable, this opinion will form the basis for others being held accountable in the future.
With qualified immunity, we have to be happy with each and every win that we get. Remember that when the government attempts to use “officer safety” to steal our freedoms, what is the proper response? That’s right: Freedom is Scary. They need to deal with it, or get another job.
New bodycam footage just released out of Raleigh, North Carolina, where I once worked as a prosecutor, showing police officers encountering, detaining and using force on Darryl Tyree Williams on January 17, 2023. That use of force, involving multiple uses of tasers, by multiple officers, resulted in the death of Mr. Williams.
What I want to focus on is not the actual tasing part. You know how that goes. But rather, whether it was constitutional for him to have been detained and handcuffed in the first place. Nobody had reported a crime. Rather, the officers were allegedly engaged in what they called “proactive patrols” of business parking lots in a location they claim “has a history of repeat calls for service for drugs, weapons, and other criminal violations.”
This is an important constitutional issue. When did the seizure take place? When were Fourth Amendment protections first triggered here? It depends on the facts, and in this case, the footage.
You have two different scenarios for these types of police encounters:
1) consensual encounters, which are theoretically voluntary in nature – meaning that the suspects are free to leave at any time. This does not trigger Fourth Amendment protections; and then you have
2) a detainment, which does trigger Fourth Amendment protections. For a lawful detainment, officers must have reasonable suspicion of a crime. That did not exist, according to the report, until after the door was opened.
So, if the occupants in the car were already detained prior to the officer observing the open container and marijuana, they were being illegally detained from the very beginning. The issue here is a factual one.
As a general matter, police officers are free to approach and question individuals without necessarily effecting a seizure. Rather, a person is seized within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment “[o]nly when the officer, by means of physical force or show of authority, has in some way restrained the liberty of a citizen.” Id. (quoting Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 19 n.16 (1968)).
Such a seizure can be said to occur when, after considering the totality of the circumstances, the Court concludes that “a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave.” Id. (quoting United States v. Gray, 883 F.2d 320, 322 (4th Cir. 1989)).
Similarly, when police approach a person at a location that they do not necessarily wish to leave, the appropriate question is whether that person would feel free to “terminate the encounter.” See Florida v. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429, 436 (1991). “[T]he free-to-leave standard is an objective test, not a subjective one.” United States v. Analla, 975 F.2d 119, 124 (4th Cir. 1992).5… (United States v. Nestor (N.D. W.Va. 2018)).
These are relevant facts to examine:
T]he number of police officers present during the encounter, whether they were in uniform or displayed their weapons, whether they touched the defendant, whether they attempted to block his departure or restrain his movement, whether the officers’ questioning was non-threatening, and whether they treated the defendant as though they suspected him of “illegal activity rather than treating the encounter as ‘routine’ in nature.”… (United States v. Nestor (N.D. W.Va. 2018))
In the Fall of 2020, David Craft, who then lived in Statesville, North Carolina, killed a monster buck in McDowell County, West Virginia, and also killed another trophy buck back in North Carolina, during the same season. David is a serious deer hunter. He does his homework; he puts in the time. He gets result. But others get jealous. Law enforcement ended up essentially stealing his antlers, posing with them for the media, dragging him through over a year of frivolous criminal prosecution, and then abruptly dropping the charging just prior to the jury trial, when it turned out they had no evidence.
You can read the full background in my first post about this case, here.
This week we filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the two primary police officers involved. Here’s the full complaint: