Their “Oops” Still Means You Go To Jail
Jan. 5, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — Accountability is something we discuss regularly here, and it’s something the average civilian faces on a regular basis. If we make mistakes, we have to suffer the consequences for them. Marcus Lewis and Cachet Beckham have learned the hard way that the same rule doesn’t necessarily apply to government employees who make “mistakes.”
A Euclid couple mistakenly jailed for several days because of a filing error in the city’s probation department cannot collect any damages, a federal judge has ruled, even though the woman lost her job and had her car towed as a result.
Marcus Lewis and Cachet Beckham, a couple who in 2013 had three children and another on the way, were jailed for four and five days, respectively, because a Euclid probation officer likely forgot to move a court order from a folder to a three-ring binder, according to court filings.
Set the Wayback Machine to February 15, 2013, where we find police responding to a domestic dispute at the Lewis and Beckham residence. In a shocking display of law enforcement restraint, neither were arrested and their children were not removed from the residence by Ohio’s Child Protective Services. Instead, the officers on the scene gave Lewis and Beckham tickets for “possession of drug paraphernalia” and “cultivation of marijuana in the vicinity of a juvenile.”
Lewis and Beckham appeared in court on February 28 and pled no contest to the charges. In March, Judge Deborah LeBarron of Euclid’s Municipal Court granted Lewis and Beckham’s Motions to perform community service in lieu of paying fines and court costs. The two were given ten days to make an appearance at Euclid Municipal Court’s probation department to arrange their community service duties.
The pair arrived six days later and got their community service assignments to work at the Eastlake, Ohio Goodwill store on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. On March 28, 2013, the two were arrested by Wickliffe Police while driving home from their second day of community service. The charge? Failure to report to the Euclid Municipal Court Probation Department to receive their community service assignments.
When the probation department receives a court order for a defendant, an employee usually puts it in a manila folder. When a defendant shows up for his or her probation assignment, an employee is supposed to remove the court order and file it away.
That didn’t happen with Beckham and Lewis, though. Both checked in with Chief Probation Officer Sherri Travis on March 7 and received their assignments, but the court orders were never moved.
On March 14, another probation officer, Steven Buy, checked the manila folder and saw Beckham and Lewis’ court orders in there. Believing that Beckham and Lewis never reported for their assignments, he referred the case to the city’s municipal court judge, who issued warrants for their arrests.
Lewis and Beckham had the paperwork from Court Community Service with them at the time Euclid Municipal Court Deputy Robert Nolan handcuffed the two and placed them in the back of his car. They attempted to show Nolan their receipts for payment of $65 each to Court Community Service. Their protests fell on deaf ears.
It was Easter weekend, Nolan informed them, and even though they might have all the paperwork on their person to prove they showed up and paid for the pleasure of performing community service, both had to go to jail because he “couldn’t immediately verify” what was in front of his eyes.
Lewis and Beckham continued their protests in front of Euclid Officers Renee McIntyre and Vic Stephec during booking. Their repeated assertions of “being arrested in error” to McIntyre and Stephec were brushed aside. Lewis and Beckham must have done something wrong for a warrant to be issued, claimed the booking officers, so off you go to the pokey.
Lewis, for complying with all court orders, got four nights in jail. Beckham got five nights in jail, had her car towed, lost her job for failure to report, and her children got a vacation at grandma’s house. At least Judge LeBarron was nice enough to vacate their community service and suspend both Lewis and Beckham’s fines and costs when they reappeared before her due to this massive fuck up by the probation department.
Lewis and Beckham then sued the probation officers, the booking officers, and the City of Euclid under 42 USC § 1983 and 1988, claiming these “mistakes” entitled them to damages since they were arrested for the crime of doing exactly what the Euclid Municipal Court told them to do. In an opinion that will surprise exactly no one who reads Fault Lines, United States District Court Judge Donald C. Nugent ruled on December 29, 2015 that this “unfortunate” and “regrettable” incident meant none of the Defendants would face a trial or consequences.
The rationale for Judge Nugent’s decision? Qualified immunity, that lovely doctrine which gives “ample room for mistaken judgments by protecting all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” Unless a Constitutional right was violated, the right at issue was clearly established at the time of the government official’s conduct, and the official’s action was objectively unreasonable under the circumstances, those acting in their official capacities get a free pass for their “mistake.”
Officers McIntyre and Stephec were just doing their jobs when they booked Lewis and Beckham, so McIntyre and Stephec get a free pass. Deputy Nolan was doing his job when he arrested these two law abiding citizens totally complying with every court order means he gets a free pass too. Since Lewis and Beckham couldn’t show an “unconstitutional ‘policy’ or ‘custom’ of the municipality or county,” the City of Euclid gets a free pass too.
What about the Probation officers who didn’t move Lewis and Beckham’s Court orders out of the manila folder causing said massive fuck up that ended in an “unfortunate” and “regrettable” event? Will they be held accountable for their mistake? No, because in Ohio, probation officers performing duties to ensure said probationers are complying with the terms of probation and evaluating compliance get quasi-judicial immunity in a civil rights suit.
Prosecutors get absolute immunity in performing their jobs, even if they fuck up. Government agents get “qualified immunity” for their fuckups. Meanwhile, the rest of us who do our jobs get fired and sued even if it’s a silly little “unfortunate” and “regrettable” mistake. We give those who work for the government this immunity because if they didn’t have it for their jobs, the courts would be flooded with § 1983 actions, or so we’re told.
My Fault Lines colleague Scott Greenfield calls bullshit, and I agree.
The “floodgates” rationale is the more pernicious justification, a theoretical travesty that has never come to pass. Already, federal district courts are “deluged” with silly, frivolous § 1983 actions, and yet they’ve managed to vet them without breaking a sweat.
The height of the absurdity that is immunity comes when we jail people for doing every single thing a court tells them to do and no one suffers consequences for it. If the public wants more accountability and transparency in the legal system in the coming year, it’s time we start rethinking how “immunity” works for agents of the state.
I’m sure Marcus Lewis and Cachet Beckham would concur.