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Jonathan Whitworth’s Dismissed Civil Suit

On November 29, 2011, in Drug War, Uncategorized, by Scott Alexander Meiner

Last week, U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey granted summary judgement to dismiss the civil rights suit (raised under 42 U.S.C. § 1983) of Jonathan Whitworth, Brittany Whitworth, and their son. The civil rights claim stems from a February 2010 Columbia, Missouri SWAT raid that went viral when police footage was obtained by the Columbia Tribune.

At issue in the motion for summary judgement was whether the police officers’ discretionary behavior was reasonable, in the context of the situation, and whether it violated clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would be aware (Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982)Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989)).

Such motions, under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, are to be looked at in the most favorable light to the non-movant (Whitworth).

In reality, law enforcement is afforded such favorable light, via judicial imaginings of what might have been reasonable, that “qualified immunity provides ample protection to all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.”  Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335 (1986)

It is no surprise that Judge Laughrey was able to rationalize a context in which it might have been reasonable for an officer to kick Jonathan Whitworth in the head while he lay face down, unarmed, before a fully armed SWAT tactical unit.

“Thus, even if Hendrick indeed kicked Whitworth, a single kick to force swift compliance with an order, and to deter hesitation incompliance with future orders from a dangerous suspect, would be objectively reasonable in this context. It is also uncontested that Whitworth suffered no injury from this contact except pain.”  Whitworth v.  Bolinger

In the execution of the warrant, a paramilitary SWAT team entered the Whitworth’s family home. Police fired seven shots while in the Whitworth home. Both of the Whitworth family dogs were shot. One of the dogs was killed. The couple’s seven year old child was witness to the raid. Jonathan Whitworth was kicked in the head. Brittany Whitworth and her child were directed at gun point.  As a result of the the raid, the police were able to find some drug paraphernalia and a small amount of cannabis. The police, initially, charged the Whitworths with child endangerment.

“The Court agrees that ideally officers would execute search warrants without pointing a gun at women and children not suspected of committing a crime. On the other hand, where officers are aware that a dangerous suspect and two large dogs are on the property, a reasonable officer could, in the heat of the moment, rely on such tactics to prod individuals to move swiftly through a potentially dangerous situation. This is especially true, where shouting and gun-pointing occurred as Mrs. Whitworth and P.M. stepped over Mr.Whitworth–who was lying on the floor–and the danger of resistance by any of the Whitworths was arguably at its highest. In this context, the behavior alleged by the Whitworths did not violate a clearly established constitutional right. The SWAT officers are thus entitled to qualified immunity on this claim.” Whitworth v.  Bolinger

This is entirely consistent with scores of cases wherein citizens were plainly wronged and yet can find no corrective, civil recourse.

In 2010, Radley Balko described the false arrest and failed civil suit of Brian Kelly. The ordeal is as instructive as it is scary.

“When Rogers returned from writing a ticket, he noticed Kelly’s camera. Rogers demanded Kelly turn the camera off and hand it over to him. Kelly complied.

Rogers then returned to his car and called John Birbeck, an assistant district attorney in Cumberland County. Rogers asked Birbeck if Kelly’s recording violated Pennsylvania’s wiretapping law. Birbeck incorrectly told him it did. Rogers then called in back-up officers and placed Kelly under arrest. During the arrest, Rogers “bumped” (the term Kelly used in his lawsuit) Kelly, causing a staple from a rugby injury to rupture, causing Kelly’s leg to bleed. Kelly spent the night (27 hours) in jail. He was eventually charged with a felony punishable by up to seven years in prison. Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed would later tell the Patriot-News that while he sympathized with Kelly not being aware that what he did was illegal, and that he might (graciously!) allow Kelly to plead to a misdemeanor, “Obviously, ignorance of the law is no defense.”

Here’s the problem: Freed was the one who was ignorant of the law. So was Birbeck. And so was Rogers. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that recording on-duty public officials is not a violation of the state’s wiretapping law because public officials have no legitimate expectation of privacy while they’re on the job. The order for Kelly to stop videotaping was illegal. So was Kelly’s arrest and his incarceration. Freed eventually dropped all charges.

Kelly filed a civil rights lawsuit against Rogers and the town of Carlisle. In May of last year, Federal District Court Judge Yvette Kane dismissed Kelly’s suit. The reason? As a police officer, Rogers is protected by the doctrine of qualified immunity. In order to even get his case in front of a jury, Kelly has to show that Rogers (a) violated Kelly’s civil rights, and (b) the rights Rogers violated have been clearly established. Even if Kelly can meet those two burdens, he must also show that Roger’s actions in violating Kelly’s rights were unreasonable.

So it isn’t enough that the police are wrong about the law. They have to be very obviously wrong for you to collect any damages from a wrongful arrest.”

Kelly’s civil suit (Kelly v. Borough Of Carlisleclaimed that the arrest had violated his rights guaranteed by the First and Fourth Amendments. Upon dismissal by summary judgement, Kelly appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. Kelly’s First Amendment claim was rejected. All claims against the Borough of Carlisle were rejected. The summary judgement on Kelly’s Fourth Amendment claim was vacated and remanded for further proceedings consistent with the Third Circuit’s analysis. The remand instructed,

“that police officer who relies in good faith on a prosecutor’s legal opinion that the arrest is warranted under the law is presumptively entitled to qualified immunity from Fourth Amendment claims premised on a lack of probable cause. That reliance must itself be objectively reasonable, however, because “a wave of the prosecutor’s wand cannot magically transform an unreasonable probable cause determination into a reasonable one.”  Accordingly, a plaintiff may rebut this presumption by showing that, under all the factual and legal circumstances surrounding the arrest, a reasonable officer would not have relied on the prosecutor’s advice.”

In analyzing the holding, Harvard Law Review noted,

“The Third Circuit had previously allocated the burdens of production reasonably: once the plaintiff established a prima facie case of wrongful arrest, the court required the police officer defendant to show probable cause, and it required the defendant to prove his or her qualified immunity defense. This arrangement accommodated the plaintiff’s limited right to pretrial discovery and the officer’s information advantage regarding the plaintiff’s arrest. The court’s opinion in Kelly will upset this sensible allocation in cases in which the police officer has consulted with a prosecutor: the plaintiff will now have the burden of showing that the officer was objectively unreasonable in following the advice. Kelly is representative of the plaintiffs on whom this burden will fall. He was neither committing nor about to commit a crime. A police officer nonetheless arrested him, and he went to jail. Because the arrest was made without probable cause, it violated Kelly’s Fourth Amendment right. Moreover, the law was clearly established in the relevant jurisdiction that the officer’s basis for arresting Kelly did not constitute probable cause. Thus, a reasonable officer would have known that he was violating Kelly’s rights. Yet, solely because a prosecutor confirmed the police officer’s inaccurate interpretation of the law, Kelly (and similarly situated civil rights plaintiffs) will now be required to produce evidence to rebut the judicially mandated inference that the police officer’s violation of his clearly established constitutional right was objectively reasonable. This presumption is unlikely to increase legal consultation; instead, it will allow courts to relieve law enforcement officers of their responsibility to exercise independent professional judgment and will decrease the likelihood that constitutional violations will be redressed.”

Qualified immunity has become so expansive that it frequently fails to correct these constitutional violations.

Simultaneously, law enforcement is increasingly funded by separate revenue streams that are not directly answerable to local voter intent.  Big money is coming in from asset forfeitures and federal law enforcement grants. Each dollar acquired outside of the legislative appropriation model is one less piece of control that the citizenry wield. The funds are not enough to ignore the citizenry, but we do see prioritization that is substantially at odds with voter intent.

The Whitworth warrant was predicated on unnamed sources that claimed Jonathan Whitworth was a major cannabis dealer. That was more than five years after Columbia, Missouri passed a proposition to make the enforcement of cannabis the lowest priority by law enforcement. The measure passed by a 61% to 39% vote.

An estimated 130-150 SWAT raids occur everyday in the United States. That is some 40,000-50,000 paramilitary operations every year.

We are simultaneously escalating domestic paramilitary activity, increasing immunity from prosecution, and ceding budgetary control.

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