Dartavius Barnes sat handcuffed inside a squad car in Springfield, Ill., looking confused as police told him they’d found a container in the center console of his car that tested positive for meth or ecstasy.
“No, no, no, bro, that’s my daughter,” Barnes yelled, body-camera video of the April 2020 incident shows. “What y’all doing, bro? That’s my daughter!”
That container, Barnes told the officer, was a small urn storing the ashes of his 2-year-old daughter — not an illegal substance.
Barnes has filed a federal lawsuit alleging officers with the Springfield Police Department unlawfully took the sealed urn containing his daughter’s remains, opened it without his consent, and spilled some of the ashes while testing for drugs. Roughly 47 minutes of body-camera footage of the encounter was published by WICS and WRSP last week.
Police eventually released Barnes without arresting him after both Barnes and his father, who was also present at the scene, pleaded with officers to give back the ashes of Ta’Naja Barnes, a 2-year-old girl who died of neglect and starvation in February 2019. Her mother, Twanka L. Davis, and her boyfriend, were later sentenced to decades in prison for the toddler’s death.
By testing them for drugs, police “desecrated” Ta’Naja’s ashes, Barnes said in the lawsuit filed against the city of Springfield and six Springfield police officers.
Attorneys representing the officers and the city did not immediately respond to messages from The Washington Post late Thursday. The officers have denied the allegations, court records state.
The incident is the latest to illustrate the risk of false positives in field-testing drug kits used by police, which in recent years have incorrectly detected drugs in objects including chocolate chip cookies, deodorant, breath mints and tortilla dough. In 2018, a Tampa Bay mother of four spent five months in jail after her vitamins falsely tested positive for oxycodone, the Miami Herald reported.
Barnes was pulled over on April 6, 2020, for allegedly speeding and disobeying a stop sign. The video shows Barnes, who cooperated with police, exiting his car and being placed in handcuffs before giving police permission to search his blue Chrysler. Barnes told police he only carried some marijuana inside the vehicle.
He was put in the back of a patrol car for about 20 minutes while officers with flashlights inspected his car and seized nearly 80 grams of marijuana stored in plastic bags and a Mason jar. At one point, one officer showed the urn to another officer.
“At first I thought it was heroin, then I checked for cocaine, but it looks like it’s probably molly,” one officer said.
“X pills?” another officer said, referencing ecstasy.
Minutes later, one of the officers told Barnes he would be arrested because they had found either meth or ecstasy in the center console of his car. “What?” Barnes said before asking to see the illegal substance police claimed they had found.
Once the officer pulled the urn out of a black latex glove, Barnes’s voice broke as he attempted to explain what the object stored.
“Give me that, bro. That’s my daughter. Please give me my daughter, bro. Put her in my hand, bro. Y’all are disrespectful, bro,” Barnes yelled before the officer shut the door of the cruiser.
The officer then discussed what Barnes had revealed with other officers. Eventually, he decided not to retest the contents of the urn and to hand the girl’s remains over to Barnes’s father, who had come to the scene and also became visibly upset once he heard police claimed the urn held drugs.
Inside a police car, the video shows, one officer who appears to be filing a police report said, “I’m just going to give him a notice to appear on the weed.”
“Aside from p---ed-off dad and testing the dead baby ashes,” another officer replies.
Barnes was released and given a notice to appear in court for illegal possession of cannabis. It’s not clear what became of those charges.
Barnes filed the lawsuit against the city and the six officers in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois in October 2020. He is seeking compensatory damages and a trial by jury.
A judge has set a jury trial for August 2022.