The Rutherford Institute is asking a federal court to reinstate several law enforcement officers in Virginia as defendants in a constitutional rights case over a man they forced into custody – even though he had done nothing wrong.
The Albemarle County officers ended up coercing 58-year-old Benjamin Burruss into a 72-hour mental health hold even though the officers themselves knew they had no legal basis or probable cause for detaining him, according to a report from the institute on Thursday.
The lawyers representing Burruss in a lawsuit alleging the county and officers violated his constitutional rights say they are asking a federal court to reconsider a decision to dismiss the individual officers as defendants. That move still would leave the county as a defendant.
But the institute said in its new report that the facts aren’t complicated.
The officers conducted a “so-called ‘welfare check’ on a 58-year-old man resulted in a two-hour, SWAT team-style raid on the man’s truck and a 72-hour mental health hold.”
“During the standoff, a heavily armed police tactical team confronted Burruss, surrounded his truck, deployed a ‘stinger’ device behind the rear tires, launched a flash grenade, smashed the side window in order to drag him from the truck, handcuffed and searched him, and transported him to a local hospital for a psychiatric evaluation and mental health hold.”
All this, the institute outlined to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, was despite knowledge by the officers “they had no legal basis nor probable cause for detaining Burruss, given that he had not threatened to harm anyone and was not mentally ill.”
Attorney Michael Winget-Hernandez is assisting the Rutherford Institute with the lawsuit.
“This is just one more example of how a relatively benign situation (a routine welfare check) gets escalated into something far more violent and dangerous through the use of militarized police, armed to the teeth and trained to react combatively,” said John W. Whitehead, a constitutional attorney and president of the institute.
“The unnecessary use of force by police officers in response to a situation that should have – and could have – been handled non-confrontationally did not, in this instance, result in a loss of life, but that is small consolation to those who have learned to tread cautiously in their interactions with police,” he said.
The pending legal complaint explains on Nov. 21, 2013, Albemarle County police officers contacted Burruss on a request from his employer.
“Police confronted Burruss as he was leaving the Comfort Inn and preparing to leave for a hunting trip to Montana. Burruss informed officers that he was fine, had no plans to hurt anyone, and just needed time to think through things, hence the trip to Montana. For two hours, officers persisted in asking Burruss to exit his truck and speak with them, with Burruss continuing to reiterate that he had no intention of harming himself or others and just wanted to be left alone and allowed to go on his hunting trip,” the report said.
“The officer speaking with Burruss informed the other officers that they had no reason to hold Burruss because he had not threatened to harm anyone and he was not mentally ill,” the report said.
However, the officers then launched a flash grenade, smashed his truck window and dragged Burruss out by his arms. He was handcuffed and held against his will.
WND reported in April when the court ruled the lawsuit could continue.
At that time, U.S. District Judge Glen Conrad refused a request by law enforcement officials to dismiss the case against the county, and individuals Garnett Riley, Jatanna Rigsby, Kanie Richardson, Robert Warfel and Peter Mainzer.
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The case seeks nominal, compensatory and punitive damages in an amount to be determined at trial.
The submission to the court pointed out that the officers are relying on an emergency order obtained with the cooperation of Burruss’ wife, even though they had been told by Kelly Burruss that her husband had not made any statements threatening harm.
The decision to grant them immunity violates other court precedents, the motion argues, and “decisions in other cases demonstrate that qualified immunity should not have been granted to the defendants at this stage of the litigation.”
“If based on the facts and circumstances known to the officer ‘it is obvious that no reasonably competent officer would have concluded that the warrant should issue,’ … the officer may not claim qualified immunity for executing the warrant,” the court was told.