Illegal roadside search of Star Trek fan brings $100K settlement

Last month, I noted that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit refused to throw out a lawsuit against Michael Reichert, a Collinsville, Ill., police officer for the roadside search he performed on the car belonging to Terrance Huff, who, unfortunately for Reichert, is also a documentary filmmaker. The search, which was captured on Reichert’s dashboard camera, raised a number of questions about the use of drug dogs, the Fourth Amendment rights of motorists, the use of civil asset forfeiture and accountability for cops with a history of bad behavior. (See my March 2012 report for the Huffington Post for a summary of these issues.)

Collinsville lies along what local defense attorneys call a “forfeiture corridor,” or a sector along an interstate, interstates 55 and 70 in this case, where police regularly look for motorists who fit some profile of a drug courier. Police can then seize cars, cash and other belongings on the flimsiest of evidence, after which the owner must go to court to win it back. Huff and his friend were returning from a Star Trek convention in St. Louis when Reichert pulled them over.

Huff’s lawsuit revealed a number of abuses, including an incredible admission from Reichert that he would sometimes wipe marijuana on cars parked in motel parking lots in order to test his drug dog. He’d do this without the owners’ permission. This is significant, because a drug dog’s “alert” is sufficient probable cause for a search. Drug dogs often have poor performance records. Some studies and surveys (including one I did of a K9 unit with the Illinois State Police) have shown that in some jurisdictions, police find measurable quantities of drugs in fewer than half the searches conducted because of an alert. Police will justify those figures by explaining that drug dogs often alert to “residue” or olfactory remnants of where drugs once were. By that logic, Reichert was essentially wiping probable cause on those motorists’ cars or wiping away their Fourth Amendment rights — take your pick.

As awards go, Huff’s $100,000 settlement isn’t huge, but it also isn’t insignificant. The Seventh Circuit absolutely grilled Collinsville attorneys during oral arguments. If you do some math based on the figures in this 2010 article from the Edwardsville Intelligencer, Madison County as a whole (where the stop took place) brings in about a half million dollars per year from civil asset forfeiture. The Collinsville Police Department gets some cut of that. So $100,000 represents about a fifth of the county’s total take (at least as of 2010), and a significantly higher portion of the police department’s take. A couple more awards like that, and maybe the Collinsville Police Department will start to make some changes.

Here’s Huff’s statement on the settlement, which I’ve slightly cut for length:

Our decision to settle was reached during mandatory settlement conference after our victory in the United States Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. For the most part, we weighed the likely outcome of the case within the Federal Circuit Court rules.

When we initially filed our complaint, it was with a prosecutorial mindset. We wanted evidence. We wanted prove beyond any reasonable doubt that Officer Reichert was in the wrong. Through out the course of this case, the city of Collinsville has done an excellent job of preventing us from getting the videos that would we believe will prove that we were not the first bad traffic stop for Officer Reichert. The end of this case was no different. There were potential litigation tactics that the defendants could have taken that would have limited our discovery, or worse yet, caused us to potentially be on the hook for their costs.

We felt that without being able to collect our evidence combined with the added risk, it was pointless to move forward with case. After the Seventh Circuit ruling, wherein it stated that Reichert violated our 4th Amendment rights, we proved what we set out to prove. All that was left for us was to collect damages and recover attorneys fees. The settlement amount was about as fair as it could be and was paid by an insurance company that assumed liability once the city surpassed its deductible. A bit disheartening but as good as it was going to get for us within the civil process.

The silver lining: The Seventh Circuit ruling in our favor. Huff v Reichert is now published and precedent within the Seventh Circuit and pursausive throughout the United States. The flimsy excuses used as reasonable suspicion by Reichert were deemed invalid and the court re-affirmed that police officers have rules to abide by just like everyone else. If officers do not obey the rules they can and should be held accountable. Huff v Reichert is already being cited in other cases involving stops like ours. Our case is helping people fight bad traffic stops and bad searches. That is a good thing. . . .

Using the success of our case as the framework, want to share with people our blueprint for flipping the script on a bad traffic stop. We will show exactly how to take a bad traffic stop and turn it into cash while publicly exposing the officers involved. Since the civil process is about money and this is the only recourse for people who experience these kinds of stops then the courts should be clogged with cases against bad cops. We want to ease any fears about the process. We did it so anyone can do it. Police who do these roadside shake downs are driven by monetary incentives. The courts offer financial incentives for attorneys and plaintiffs for suing police officers. Why not take advantage and get paid if your right are violated?

As for Collinsville, Michael Reichert is still employed. As a public service we plan on releasing Officer Reichert’s deposition videos. We will cut out any personal information and make them available to everyone. “Breakfast in Collinsville” and the depositions will remain online as long as Reichert is employed as a police officer. Given his history of questionable stops and the fact that he will not be penalized, we feel this is fair.

More on forfeiture coming soon.

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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