The story of an Alabama police officer body slamming a 57-year-old grandfather from India, leaving the man partially paralyzed, should not come as a surprise to Legal Schnauzer readers. That's because a similar event happened to me, and I've chronicled it here.
Sureshbhai Patel was in Madison, Alabama (a Huntsville suburb), to help his engineer son and daughter-in-law with their newborn baby. Officer Eric Parker responded to a "suspicious activity" call, confronted the non-English speaking Patel, and wound up slamming him to the ground headfirst--all for the apparent "crime" of "walking on the sidewalk while having dark skin and wearing a toboggan."
Parker was fired and faces a third-degree assault charge. Patel had spinal-fusion surgery and faces months of physical therapy.
Patel weighs about 130 pounds, and at last report he remains in a Huntsville hospital--it's unknown if he will regain full use of his limbs, although his condition seems to be improving. The assault has become an international story, with many news outlets in India running it on the front page of their Web sites.
A video of the violent encounter, which can be seen at the beginning of this post, probably has gone viral. I've watched it perhaps a dozen times, and I get a sense of dread each time before clicking "play".
Why the visceral reaction from me? To a considerable extent, I've been in Patel's shoes. I know firsthand the lack of regard Alabama "law enforcement" officers can show toward a citizen who has committed no crime--and for whom they have no lawful grounds to detain.
The assault against me also was captured on video, but it has not been made public. I've seen it, and it should be available via Tonya Willingham, of the Shelby County, Alabama, district attorney's office at firstname.lastname@example.org or (205) 669-3750.
On October 23, 2013, about 6 p.m., Shelby County, Alabama, officer Chris Blevins almost hit my vehicle with his cruiser as I tried to pull into our garage. Blevins was unable to block my path, so I pulled into the garage, exited the vehicle, and prepared to push a button to close the garage door. Blevins showed no warrant, said he had no warrant, and did not state why he was there--but he began entering my garage anyway. He asked me to step outside, and I told him to get out of my house. In a matter of seconds, he was on me--shoving me to a concrete floor three times, spraying me with mace, and calling for another officer to help drag me some 25 feet to the driveway outside.
Ironically, Sureshbhai Patel and I are almost the same age. I was one month from my 57th birthday when Chris Blevins attacked me. I'm 58 now, so Mr. Patel actually is a little younger than me.
I was lying face down on my driveway when Officer Jason Valenti threatened to break my arms because I couldn't get my hands in the proper position to be handcuffed. That was largely because I had never been arrested in my life and had no idea what I was supposed to be doing--plus, I was disoriented and almost immobilized from the mace, which was dripping all over me.
Someone placed me in the back of a sheriff's vehicle, where I could hear officers talking about also trying to arrest my wife, Carol. Thankfully, she was taking a nap in an upstairs bedroom and did not hear what was going on. She awoke later that evening, well after dark, and had no idea where I was. Her first clue came when she went downstairs to our basement and saw boxes and other items strewn everywhere--clear signs of violence. Her first thought was that I had been murdered, probably because of something I had reported on this blog.
She contacted a friend who has a legal background, and he was able to discover that I had been booked into the Shelby County Jail. I had been arrested and would stay in jail for more than five months, becoming the only journalist to be arrested in the western hemisphere in 2013, and the only one this century to be arrested on a purely civil matter.
In the week after my arrest, officers came to our house several more times, in apparent efforts to arrest Carol. They failed, and she was able to get out word about what had happened to me--and like the Patel case, it made international news.
(A video at the end of this post shows the scene in our garage after I was attacked. Carol describes for a reporter what I had told her about the nature of my arrest. Thanks to Matt Osborne for this video and his coverage.)
What prompted law enforcement to swarm our property, both before and after my arrest? No one had made remotely criminal allegations against me or Carol. Rather, a powerful Republican political figure named Rob Riley (son of former governor Bob Riley) had filed a defamation lawsuit against me--and he named Carol in the suit, claiming she served as "administrator" of the blog, even though she was not involved with it in any capacity.
I'm not aware of a hearing ever being held on my motion to quash, and I'm not aware that Riley provided any evidence that service was lawful, as was required of him under Alabama law. If a plaintiff has not proven proper service--and I never was notified of any hearing on the subject--the court has no jurisdiction over defendants.
That was the status of the case at the moment Chris Blevins set foot in my garage.
Service had been contested as improper and invalid, the court had no jurisdiction over me until proper service was proven, and there had been no hearing or ruling on that issue. With the relevant law as a backdrop, perhaps you can understand why I was insistent that Chris Blevins get the hell out of my garage.
I knew Blevins had no lawful grounds to be in my house, just as Officer Parker had no lawful grounds for body slamming Sureshbhai Patel.
The point here is not to compare the two incidents; both are horrifying examples of police abuse. An argument could be made that, due to the nature of Mr. Patel's physical injuries, his case was worse than mine. An argument could be made that, due to the fact I unlawfully spent five months in jail, my case was worse than his.
What's important, in my view, is that no one has been held accountable for what happened to me--and that could have contributed to what happened to Mr. Patel. My case remains fresh, well within any applicable statute of limitations, but there has been no civil-rights lawsuit, no FBI investigation, no criminal investigation of any sort. All of those things have happened, or are happening, in the Patel case--as they should.
If serious action had been taken against the bad actors in my case, would the Patel case have never happened? Did my case represent the kind of harsh lesson that needed to be driven home to Alabama law enforcement, in order to protect people like Mr. Patel, to protect all of us?
At the very least, the assault against me indicates you are not safe from law-enforcement thugs even if you have white skin, speak English, are standing inside your own home, and have lived in Alabama for 35 years, as I have. Mr. Patel's sin seemingly was having dark skin and an inability to understand English; mine was being a practicing journalist, willing to write tough stories about the state's legal and political elites.
(By the way, none of my reporting has been proven at trial to be false or defamatory. In the Riley case, there was no trial because Riley didn't ask for one. Judge Claud Neilson acted as a one-man censor of this blog, in gross violation of Near v. Minnesota and its progeny.)
With no accountability so far in my case, did that help set the stage for the abuse of Sureshbhai Patel--did it almost make his case inevitable, given Alabama's toxic history on race and justice? I would argue that the answer is yes.
(To be continued)