Set Phasers to litigate: ‘Trekkie’ lawsuit against Illinois officer moves forward

In December 2011, Collinsville, Ill., police officer Michael Reichert pulled over Terrance Huff’s red PT Cruiser on Interstate 70, just outside of St. Louis. That portion of the interstate is commonly known to local defense lawyers as a “forfeiture corridor,” or a place where police agencies target motorists they suspect are smuggling (or perhaps just carrying) drugs in the hope of seizing cash, cars and other property for their departments.

After an alert from Reichert’s drug dog and an exhaustive search of Huff’s car, Reichert found no measurable quantity of drugs (he claimed to have found marijuana “shake”), and sent Huff on his way.

Unfortunately for Reichert, Huff is a documentary filmmaker. He’s also nobody’s pushover. After fighting some resistance from the Collinsville Police Department, Huff obtained dash-camera footage that raised some questions about the stop, the dog alert, Reichert’s questioning of Huff, and Reichert’s history of disciplinary problems as a police officer. It also raised some broader questions about how all of these tactics are used across the country. (I explored some of those questions here.) The incident later inspired a plot line in a 2012 episode of the CBS drama “The Good Wife.”

Huff then filed a lawsuit, which has since turned up all sorts of interesting information, including the fact that Reichert sometimes wiped marijuana on cars parked at local businesses as a form of training for his dog — without consent from the cars’ owners.

The biggest barrier to lawsuits against police officers is the doctrine of qualified immunity. It isn’t enough to show that a cop violated your rights. To even get in front of a jury, you must also show that the rights the officer violated were “well established” at the time of the incident. The tactics Reichert used in Huff’s case are fairly common, so Huff surviving qualified immunity was far from a sure thing. But this week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit rejected Reichert’s qualified immunity claim and will allow Huff’s suit to go forward.

The decision is a thorough rebuke of Reichert and an unmitigated victory for Huff — the court ruled in his favor on every claim. Huff will now need to persuade a jury to rule against Reichert. Video of the stop that caused all of this below:

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko · March 12