This morning a federal judge denied the motion to dismiss filed by Putnam County, who had asked the Court to dismiss the first of several lawsuits filed against Putnam County for a pattern and practice of illegal searches by their “Special Enforcement Unit,” who were caught on video searching the inside of my client Dustin Elswick’s home, which you may have seen on Youtube.
Usually in federal civil rights lawsuit, you are required to sue the individual government employee or officer who engaged in the violation. However, under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Monell v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978), counties and cities (i.e., political subdivisions) may be sued directly when they have adopted some policy or practice which authorizes a constitutional violation against citizens by police officers. These are known as “Monell Claims” and they are very difficult to prove, generally. So they are pretty routinely dismissed. I’m happy this one wasn’t. Presumably the other two cases just like it will also be allowed to proceed…..
The Complaint’s other allegations include that PCC purposely established and operated the the SEU and knew of and condoned the SEU officers repeated constitutional violations. Id. ¶ 51. This alleges that the PCC was the “moving force” behind the constitutional violations where it deliberately created a unit of officers who did not comply with procedural safeguards and engaged in constitutional violations. See Bd. of Ctny. Comm’rs of Bryan Cnty. v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 404 (quoting Monell, 436 U.S. at 694).
Here’s the Court’s memorandum order and opinion allowing the case to proceed:
The lawsuit was filed today on behalf of Dustin Elswick, against Putnam County, West Virginia, along with four police officers involved in the infamous “Special Enforcement Unit.” These are the cops who were caught on hidden camera searching the inside of Dustin’s home. Although they cut the wire on an outside surveillance camera, they were apparently unaware of the cameras inside the home.
This is a federal “Section 1983” lawsuit alleging the violation of federal constitutional rights; namely, the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. A warrantless search of your home is automatically unconstitutional in the absence of one of two exceptions: consent, or exigent circumstances (emergency), neither of which apply here. Two prior federal lawsuits have already been filed against the SEU thus far for similar allegations in the Johnson case, as well as the Dillon case. The remedy is an award of money damages, along with reasonable attorney fees and expenses.
There was an internal investigation, as the news reported, but we never received information about the outcome. That sheriff has since been replaced.