|Protests in Ferguson, MO|
The nation's attention has been riveted in recent weeks on Ferguson, Missouri, a St. Louis suburb where an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer on August 9.
Many Americans now are asking questions about abusive tactics that law-enforcement officers use against citizens. This is not a new issue here at Legal Schnauzer. I've seen abusive cops in a firsthand way, inside my own home.
You don't have to be a young black guy, in a public place, to be injured by rogue cops. It can happen when you are a middle-aged white guy, simply trying to park a car in your own garage.
How gross is the misconduct in my case?
Courtroom evidence indicates my arrest last October was conducted without a warrant. The facts presented in court strongly suggest I was the victim of a state-sanctioned kidnapping, unlawfully thrown in jail for five months--all because of posts that appeared on this blog. (I was the only U.S. journalist to be jailed in 2013, quite a distinction for Shelby County, Alabama.)
A videotape of the arrest, played in court, shows that Shelby County Deputy Chris Blevins never showed me a warrant, never told me he had a warrant, and never said I was under arrest until I had been knocked down three times and sprayed in the face with Mace. When prosecutor Tonya Willingham later was ordered by Judge Ron Jackson to turn over copies of any warrants in the case, she said, "Your Honor, we have no warrants."
(In an incident report, Blevins states that he had two warrants for my arrest on contempt of court. The alleged contempt of court stemmed from a preliminary injunction that Judge Claud Neilson had issued in a defamation lawsuit filed against me by Alabama political figure Rob Riley. Never mind that a 1931 U.S. Supreme Court case styled Near v. Minnesota says you cannot be subject to a preliminary injunction in a case of alleged defamation, and that finding is built on First-Amendment law that dates back some 200 years, almost to the beginning of the country. Cases subsequent to Near make it clear that First Amendment issues are considered so important under the law that no court is to issue a preliminary injunction in a defamation case because it would amount to censorship by a single judge. For that reason, cases involving the First Amendment generally must be heard by a jury, but Rob Riley never requested a jury trial, and Judge Neilson repeatedly made "single judge" rulings that amounted to unlawful censorship. [See Bernard v. Gulf Oil Co., 619 F. 2d 459, 1980.]
(It's not Officer Blevins' job, of course, to know the law behind any warrant that might come his way. But one has to wonder about his actions. His report states that he had two arrest warrants for contempt of court, but a video of the arrest shows that he never showed me a warrant, never told me he had a warrant, and never even told me he was there to arrest me until I had been beaten up and sprayed in the face with Mace--inside my own home. Things become even more curious when prosecutor Tonya Willingham is ordered in court to turn over any warrants and states that she doesn't have any. What is a reasonable person to think? This reasonable person thinks there either was no warrant, or it was defective to the point that law-enforcement officials did not want me to have a chance to give it a close look.)
In previous posts, I've raised the issue of whether the warrant in my case was unsigned. But that issue is irrelevant in light of courtroom evidence that there was no warrant at all.
What does this mean under the law? An Alabama appellate court overturned the conviction in a 1975 stolen-property case because a search warrant in the case was unsigned. In so doing, the court cited a 1903 case that found an arrest warrant under such circumstances was "utterly void."
The stolen-property case is styled Kelley v. State, 316 So. 2d 233 (1975), and we will take a close look at it in upcoming posts. But first, let's look at these issues in the context of my own arrest, which appears to go beyond the question of whether a warrant was signed to whether there was a warrant at all.
To make matters more disturbing, my arrest was not even for a crime. It was for alleged civil contempt, and at the time, I had a pending motion before the court showing that I had not been lawfully served. That meant the court had no jurisdiction over me, that it had no authority to order my arrest or do anything else.
The civil contempt grew from a preliminary injunction in a defamation case, and analysts from both the left and right have written that it represents an unlawful prior restraint under the First Amendment.
Since my release from five months of incarceration on March 26, 2014, I've reviewed a portion of the many articles written about my case in both the mainstream and Web press. Most of the reporting has focused on First Amendment issues, and that is understandable given the weighty nature of free-speech matters.
But I also am troubled about the Fourth Amendment issues, which deal with the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures and requires a warrant that is judicially sanctioned. I was subjected to two traffic stops, which are considered seizures under the Fourth Amendment. And I still have nightmares from a deputy entering my home, without showing a warrant, and then knocking me to a concrete floor three times, Macing me in the face, and dragging me to a patrol car.
All of this is particularly troubling when you consider that this was a non-criminal arrest inside a dwelling. The U.S. Supreme Court has placed special standards on law enforcement when making arrests inside the home. We see signs that those standards were not met in my case.
We will examine relevant state and U.S. law in upcoming posts.
It all shows that police officers have been acting outside the law long before most Americans ever heard of Ferguson, Missouri.