My Client Films Officer Appearing to Overdose After Suspect Allegedly Throws Narcotics

It hit the news yesterday that several Oak Hill, West Virginia police officers had supposedly overdosed after narcotics were thrown at them by a suspect they were attempting to arrest. I was already looking into the science behind these claims when I found out that a client of mine actually witnessed what happened, and began filming with his cell phone.

“Sheriff’s Office: Two officers in Oak Hill overdose after suspect throws drugs at them” was the headline. Here’s the media report:

What were the chances that a client of mine just happened to be driving by when it happened? Compare the footage with the press release and let me know your thoughts on the matter. I have some initial thoughts, but want to look into it some more.

Here’s the statement issued by the sheriff’s department:

Here’s the footage:

Cop Slams Pregnant Woman Over Broken Taillight – In Her Own Driveway

So many police encounters we see in the news, or on Youtube, were completely unnecessary. Some may say those are just circumstances where “A-holes collide,” but they need to keep in mind that we’re not talking about random people encountering each other, but rather an interaction between a citizen and that citizen’s government. These are not equal positions. Hot-headed police officers who primarily enforce their ego and authority, tend to escalate situations unnecessarily, creating crime out of thin air and endangering the safety of everyone. A little bit of common sense and a little bit of kindness would really go a long way. 

Recently, a federal lawsuit was filed in Kentucky and the body cam footage was released, showing a young pregnant woman confronted by a police officer, in her own driveway, over a busted taillight. Take a look and then I’ll give you my thoughts about whether her constitutional rights were violated. Can the police just pull in your driveway after you park and detain you in your yard, much less use force on you?

According to the lawsuit, the officer, McCraken County, Kentucky Deputy Jon Hayden threatened to tase this 24 year old pregnant woman, Elayshia Boey. He then “face planted” her into a cruiser, pinned her to the ground, with his knee on her back, holding her down with the full weight of his body. She was six months pregnant at the time. 

In his citation, Deputy Hayden wrote that after Boey refused to identify herself, he attempted to arrest her by grabbing her writ to “gain control.” However, the body cam footage showed that after the deputy asked her to identify herself, she gave her name. The deputy further wrote in his report that “after a brief struggle, Boey was then placed on the ground by physical force to gain control and compliance.” Boey and her mother were both arrested and charged with felony assault of a police officer. Those charges are apparently still pending. After a complaint was received, McCracken County Sheriff Ryan Norman said that the sheriff’s department had investigated itself and concluded that none of their policies or procedures were violated. He apparently didn’t mention whether any constitutional protections were violated. 

A few minutes later, after both women had been arrested, Hayden puts his body camera back on. His audio shuts off twice when he explains to other deputies what happened. Later, Deputy Hayden’s conversation with the jail nurse and the nurse’s evaluation of Boey are also not audible on the body camera. Note that when the women were upset and verbalizing their displeasure during the arrest, that he left that audio running. But at other times, he apparently concealed his own audio.

Deputy Hayden did not take her for medical treatment. Instead a jail nurse refused to admit her because of her injuries and being 6 months pregnant. Only then was she taken to an ER. Legal analysis aside, was any of that really necessary? Is it that difficult to just be kind, or at least calm? You would think that rational police officers would sometimes think to themselves, do I really need to be doing this right now? What is my purpose? What am I trying to achieve? This is where ego gets in the way. The question is not what you think you have the authority to do, but rather, what should you do? Hell, just acting rationally, what is in your own best interests? Whereas citizens should ask themselves at times whether they really want to invite the man into their lives, so should police officers ask whether they want to invite drama into their lives through demonstrating their perceived authority, or demanding what they perceive to be respect. 

It’s really not that much different than child custody litigation. Just because you can, or you think it’s fair, doesn’t mean that it’s also best for your child, or you in the long run. You’ll end up in a better position, and happier, by just being kind, or at least manipulative and pretending to be kind. Meanwhile, record and obtain evidence with a smile on your face. But I guess that’s too much to ask at this point. 

In the footage, we don’t see the beginning of the stop. Thus I’m not sure whether Boey was already out of her car prior to the initiation of the stop. This is actually a common issue I see. Can police officers pull into your driveway, knowing you just pulled in, got out of your car, and begin walking in your house, and then at that point initiate a traffic stop? This is where it depends on the circumstances. 

As we’ve discussed before, reasonable suspicion of a crime is required to detain a suspect. Usually in a traffic stop that is based on the officer allegedly observing a traffic law violation. Driving with a broken taillight could meet the reasonable suspicion requirement. But what about seeing the busted taillight, and then not getting to the suspect until they’re standing in their yard, the car now parked? What about not getting to them once they’re inside their house, even though you saw them drive with a busted taillight? This is where we could get into a lot of “what ifs” that could be tricky for a police officer. If you’re going to have to perform a traffic stop on someone who is now standing in their driveway, or yard, or porch, you might want to ask yourself if the crime for which you’re basing reasonable suspicion on is sufficiently important to justify entering this grey area that may involve you now being within the curtilage of someone’s home, without a warrant, and without probable cause.

Now, if there is a warrant, a police officer could even follow a homeowner inside their home to arrest them. Note I said it has to be their home. The home of a third party would require a search warrant, or a valid exception. If it was a “hot pursuit” situation, under some circumstances officers could be given quite a lot of leeway in entering, or remaining in the curtilage of a residence. But those “what ifs” don’t appear to be relevant here. We are looking at the most minor of minor traffic offenses, followed by an arrest for an alleged failure to identify, where the arrestee had just given her name. As I mentioned in a recent video on one of my cases, he tables turn when you’re talking about a police encounter occurring within the curtilage of a suspect’s residence. Law enforcement has no right to demand identification on your own private property – at least not without a warrant. 

But it just goes back to the fact that a police officer should ask himself, why am I here? What is my purpose? What do I have to gain? And also, what do I have to lose? It would be a novel idea for law enforcement in this country to just try being kind and using common sense. Of course, there are plenty of those officers around. You just don’t hear about them or see them on Youtube. Because they are the ones who go home at night – drama free. 

Cops Tase and Arrest Guy Sleeping in his Truck in a Home Depot Parking Lot

Police officers have a hard time understanding that reasonable suspicion to justify detaining a citizen is supposed to be based on suspicion of a crime, rather than a hunch or ego of the officer. How many police videos we see were completely unnecessary and achieved nothing, other than bad publicity, lawsuits and constitutional violations? 

Devin Thomas was asleep in his truck on Christmas night in a Home Depot parking lot in Delaware. He was waiting for the store to open because he needed to buy products they sell for his business. He was traveling for work, which takes place on the highways, hence the fact that he was sleeping in his truck. He awoke to a flashlight in his face and somebody trying to talk to him. 

A law enforcement officer may detain an individual for investigation when the officer has a reasonable suspicion, supported by articulable facts, that criminal activity is afoot. Courts, in this case the Third Circuit, consider the totality of the circumstances in determining whether the facts known to the officer amount to an objective and particularized basis for reasonably suspecting criminal activity. An officer is entitled to draw specific reasonable inferences from the facts in light of his experience.

Courts have ruled that the government “must do more than simply label a behavior as ‘suspicious’ to make it so.” Police officers must “be able to either articulate why a particular behavior is suspicious or logically demonstrate, given the surrounding circumstances, that the behavior is likely to be indicative of some more sinister activity than may appear at first glance.”

“An individual’s presence in an area of expected criminal activity, standing alone, is not enough to support a reasonable, particularized suspicion that the person is committing a crime.” However, the Supreme Court has noted “the fact that the stop occurred in a `high crime area’ [is] among the relevant contextual considerations in a Terry analysis.”

Courts in the Third Circuit have allowed officers to consider proximity to locations where crimes are known to have occurred as one factor in the development of reasonable suspicion. What crime was suspected here of Mr. Thomas having committed? I reviewed the state trespassing laws in Delaware. I see no basis for any objectively reasonable belief any of those even theoretically could have been violated here. 

It doesn’t appear that there could have been any reasonable suspicion that the crime of trespassing has been committed. Delaware doesn’t appear to have any automatic liability trespassing statute wherein you’re committing the crime of trespassing just by virtue of driving in, or parking in, the parking lot of a closed business. It doesn’t appear that there’s any evidence that Home Depot complained about this individual in particular, or about people driving in, or parking in, their parking lots after hours, or before hours. There appears to have been no allegation that there was any burglary that occurred at this location, but rather alleged knowledge of past issues. Certainly nothing particular to this individual. Moreover, no information is given that the behavior of parking in a parking lot, or the appearance of this individual, or this vehicle, justified suspicion of burglary. To the contrary, it appears to be a work truck in the parking lot of a work supply business. 

Trooper White wrote in his police report, that he was on “proactive patrol” and just happened to be passing by Home Depot when he observed a white truck with its lights on parked next to two Home Depot rental vehicles. He further wrote that “Home Depot recently advised” them that “they were having issues with their alarm system and requested additional patrols in the area for suspicious activity.” He wrote that it was 2:30 in the morning, and the store didn’t open until 7:00 a.m.

However, he mentioned no actual report of any criminal activity, much less criminal activity pertaining specifically to Mr. Thomas. At least not prior to the seizure of Mr. Thomas. It was a white truck in a construction material store parking lot. There was no indication that the vehicle had entered a closed-off area, through a gate, or past no trespassing signs. It was a public place parking lot. I see nothing in the Delaware trespassing laws criminalizing the behavior whatsoever. All we have here is an officer with a hunch and an ego. 

After we get past the reasonable suspicion issue, we have the fact that Mr. Thomas was tased here. The alleged justification for that, according to the officer who fired the taser was that Mr. Thomas was allegedly grabbing and pushing Trooper White’s arm as White attempted to forcibly unlock the driver’s side door. 

However, Trooper White can be heard on the dash cam footage saying to the tasing officer, “I didn’t mean for you to have to tase him.” Apparently that trooper tased Mr. Thomas because Trooper White told him to tase him. At least he did, but didn’t really mean it. At one point in their reports they mentioned that they used “de minimis” force in extracting Mr. Thomas from his vehicle. That’s literally not true. Tasing is actually a high level of force that’s not supposed to be used where unnecessary. I believe there’s a good case to be made here that, even if reasonable suspicion existed to extract Mr. Thomas from the vehicle, that the level of force was unreasonable. 

He was only suspected of having committed trespassing, at best. He wasn’t actually a threat to them in any way. He was just standing on his rights. He was surrounded by police officers. He wasn’t going anywhere. They had no indication of any immediate safety threat to any individual. Except to Mr. Thomas, of course. 

Psycho K9 Officer Caught on Dash Cam

New footage showing dash cam video of the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Department using a K9 to make an arrest. Here’s the footage:

When a K9 is deployed on a citizen, that individual is “seized” for Fourth Amendment purposes. Assuming the seizure itself was lawful, the issue is whether the seizure may be “unreasonable” due to being an excessive level of force. The deployment itself of a police K9 during the course of a seizure may be unreasonable, depending on the circumstances.

Courts look to the Graham Factors: the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect is actively resisting or evading, and most importantly, whether the suspect poses an immediate safety threat to the officer, or others. 

The Fourth Circuit held, as early as 1995, that the improper deployment of a police dog that mauls a suspect constitutes excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Specifically, deploying a dog against a suspected bank robber in a narrow alleyway without warning and a fair opportunity to surrender was unreasonable and excessive. Furthermore, doing so where the suspect was surrounded by police officers is itself unreasonable and excessive, even where a warning is given. (Kopf v. Wing (4th Cir. 1991).The Fourth Circuit has also held that sending a police dog into a home that contained a burglary suspect, without warning, resulting in severe injuries to the homeowner, was an excessive force violation. Vathekan v. Prince George’s County (4th Cir. 1998).

Repeatedly over the years, the Court has held generally that the use of serious or violent force, i.e., disproportionate force) in arresting or seizing an individual that has surrendered, or who is not actively resisting or attempting to flee, and who does not present a danger to others, is an unreasonable excessive force violation. 

The 7th Circuit has denied qualified immunity to a police officer where he failed to call off a police dog that was mauling a “non-resisting (or at least passively resisting) suspect.” Becker v. Elfreich (7th Cir. 2016). That Court also denied qualified immunity to an officer who commanded a dog to attack a suspect who was already complying with orders, and where there were multiple backup officers present. Alicea v. Thomas (7th Cir. 2016).

The Fourth Circuit cited that last case in 2017 as providing “fair warning” to police officers that they will lose qualified immunity where an officer deploys a police dog against a suspect was was “not in active flight at the time he was discovered,” but was “standing still, arms raised….” Booker v. S.C. Dep’t of Corr. (4th Cir. 2017). The Court also cited a 6th Circuit case where officers deployed a police dog to apprehend a suspect that had given police no indication that he presented a danger to others, and was not actively resisting but “lying face down with his arms at his side.” Campbell v. City of Springboro (6th Cir. 2012).

The Fourth Circuit has also cited an 11th Circuit case denying qualified immunity where the officer ordered his K9 to attack a suspect that had previously surrendered and complied with the officer’s order to lie on the ground. Priester v. City of Riviera (11th Cir. 2000).

Generally speaking: Where K9s are deployed, a warning should be given, along with an opportunity to surrender, where possible. Deploying K9s on suspects who have been already subdued, surrounded, or who are not actively resisting or evading arrest, is also likely excessive force, with or without a warning. Deploying K9s on suspects who pose no immediate threat is generally going to be unreasonable. K9s should only be deployed where there exists a serious immediate safety threat in a tense, fast-moving situation, where there’s some actual reason for doing so. 

Raw version of body cam:

Parents Call For Ambulance But Cops Show up With Taser Instead

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.

Facebook version:

https://fb.watch/fsrrv7KhWw/

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. 

The International Association of Chiefs of Police puts out a model taser policy, which provides the following guidance to law enforcement agencies around the country, about taser usage on suspects:

Should be used:

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.

“It’s Not a Gun Bro” – LAPD Footage Shows Suspect Holding Car Part

We’ve all seen the recent shooting footage out of Ohio. But that may have overshadowed another recent case where body cam footage was just released from the LAPD. Body cam footage reveals that just before officers shot an unarmed man holding an automotive part, that one of the officers said to the others, “it’s not a gun bro.” Then he was shot with no warning. Indeed, it wasn’t a gun.

Here’s the LAPD’s video:

Here’s the official account as per the LAPD:

On July 18, 2022, at around 7:20 p.m., Southwest Division patrol officers received an “Assault with a Deadly Weapon” radio call. The reporting party advised Communications Division that the suspect was armed with a black, semi-automatic handgun. Uniformed personnel observed the suspect matching the description listed in the comments of the radio call, walking on the north sidewalk of Martin Luther King Boulevard, just east of Bronson Avenue. Officers made contact with the suspect, who they believed was in possession of a handgun. The suspect refused to respond to officer’s verbal commands. As a uniformed supervisor arrived at scene, he also believed that the suspect was armed with a handgun. As the suspect walked away from the officers, he turned multiple times in their direction and pointed a black metallic object believed to be a firearm, which resulted in an Officer-Involved-Shooting (OIS). The suspect was struck by gunfire and taken into custody.

Determining whether an officer’s use of force violates the Fourth Amendment requires balancing “the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against the importance of the governmental interests alleged to justify the intrusion.” Tennessee v. Garner (1985).That inquiry generally involves an assessment of factors such as “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.” Graham v. Connor (1989).

In the context involved here, the Supreme Court has crafted a more definitive rule: An officer may use deadly force to apprehend a fleeing suspect only if “the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others.” Garner , 471 U.S. at 11, 105 S.Ct. 1694. A suspect may pose such a threat if “there is probable cause to believe that he has committed a crime involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical harm,” or if the suspect threatens the officer or others with a weapon capable of inflicting such harm. Id.

The key questions is whether the officer had an objectively reasonable basis for believing that the suspect posed a threat of serious physical harm, either to himself or to others. 

The officer who fired here, fired from behind at a suspect who was running away from the officer. Thus it would be difficult to claim that he did so out of fear for his own safety at the moment the shots were fired. Did the officer therefore have an objectively reasonable basis for believing that the suspect posed an immediate threat of serious physical harm to others? The footage shows that no other individuals appear to be in immediate danger at the time the shots were fired. One police cruiser attempts to drive up and block the suspect’s path. Theoretically the officer, or officers, inside could be in harm’s way – though they also clearly were intentionally placing themselves in his path.

Perhaps the best argument for justification is what is known as the “fleeing felon rule” which arose out of Tennessee v. Garner. An officer can argue that permitting the suspect to escape posed a threat to the general public. A fleeing suspect’s escape can pose a threat to the public when police have probable cause to believe that the suspect has committed a violent crime. Deadly force to prevent such an escape can be reasonable if the suspect has demonstrated that he was willing to injure an officer who got in the way of his escape or that he was willing to persist in extremely reckless behavior that threatened the lives of all those around. (Orn v. City of Tacoma, Corp. (9th Cir. 2020). 

Usually this would involve a vehicle pursuit, or some type of running gun battle situation, where the suspect has already tried to seriously injure someone. Here, however, though it was reported that the suspect pointed a gun at someone, the officers did not know that to be true as of yet. They had not observed him threaten anyone with a gun. They had not positively identified the person by that point. They merely observed that he was holding something that could be a gun, and that he refused to stop and talk with them. There’s no probable cause for the officers to believe that the suspect had committed any serious crime. The suspect was not given a warning of the imminent use of deadly force by the officers, which has been required by the 9th Circuit in prior cases. 

To the contrary, here, the officers themselves were unsure of whether they many even had a gun. As we heard on the body cam footage, one of the officers said, “that’s not a gun bro.” And it wasn’t. At the end of the day, there is sufficient evidence here to deny qualified immunity and take the officer before a civil jury on an excessive force claim. The jury can decide whether the officer’s claims, whatever they end up being, are objectively reasonable. 

Bystander Films Cops Bothering Homeless Lady and Gets The Special Treatment

In Richmond, Virginia, Kaya had just picked up some groceries and was walking home. She noticed some police officers bothering a homeless lady sleeping on a bench. She stopped to film them. You know what happens next…. She reached out to me and asked me to share her story.

Here’s the full video with the raw bodycam footage:

Sargent v. Bish – Officer Depositions – Part 1

Melvin’s wife filmed his arrest. A federal civil rights lawsuit was filed. Here’s part 1 of the video deposition of the primary defendant police officer.

Officer depositions – Part 1:

Here’s the original video:

Here’s the federal section 1983 lawsuit:

WV Deputy Arrested & Indicted by Feds – County Refused My FOIA for Body Cam

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. See Park 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. 

Virginia Jury Awards Damages Against Officers for Civil Rights Violations

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.