Judge Barrett’s Decisions on Law Enforcement I

Deception, Framing, Cover-Ups, and Other Disinformation

Before reading this summary, please read the overview for context.

Rainsberger v. Benner (2019)

Judge Barrett listed this as number 5 of the 10 (actually 11) most significant cases during her time on the Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit. (Others have also found the opinion significant.) She summarised the case as follows:

William Rainsberger was charged with murdering his elderly mother and imprisoned for two months before the charges against him were dropped. He sued the detective who had built the case, alleging that the detective had knowingly or recklessly made false statements in the probable cause affidavit. Because it is clearly established that it violates the Fourth Amendment to use deliberately falsified allegations to demonstrate probable cause, I concluded on behalf of a unanimous panel that the detective was not entitled to qualified immunity.

[2020 Questionnaire at 41-42]

William Rainsberger frequently visited his mother, who lived alone in a high-crime area. One day, he found her lying in a pool of blood on the floor, barely breathing. He called an ambulance, saying that her head had been bashed in, and then his brother. The first responder was suspicious of Mr. Rainsberger, as was detective Charles Benner, who arrived shortly afterwards.

Mr. Benner ultimately concluded that Rainberger and his siblings had murdered their mother to inherit her money. The prosecution didn’t follow up on Benner’s first request so, about half a year later, he made a second. This time, Benner included evidence of a phone call that Rainsberger had made from his mother’s apartment before she died but the time stamp was off by an hour; actually, this was the call to his brother afterwards. Benner mischaracterised several other items of evidence, including depicting a video of throwing away rubbish as a video of weapon disposal. He also left out evidence suggesting that the victim had been killed by burglars. [6-11] As a result of all this, Rainsberger was charged with murder, even spending a couple months in jail. The charges were dismissed after a year “because of evidentiary problems.” [7]

Unsurprisingly, Rainsberger sued Benner. Benner moved for summary judgment, arguing that he had qualified immunity. Judge William Lawrence disagreed and Benner appealed. Judge Barrett wrote that the evidence in Benner’s affidavit was insufficient to warrant arresting Rainsberger. [11-15] It didn’t matter if Benner possessed sufficient evidence of guilt, unless he disclosed it in the affidavit, but it did matter that he omitted evidence of innocence. Both deficiencies prevented the magistrate from properly evaluating whether a warrant of arrest was justified. [15-20]

The court held that qualified immunity didn’t apply, because lying in an affidavit would have been clearly unlawful to a reasonable official. [22-24] Barrett went on to write that qualified immunity would protect an officer for failing to disclose exculpatory evidence, unless it should be clear that the evidence were material, but Benner hadn’t made this argument. [24-25]

Therefore, summary judgment was denied, enabling Rainsberger to continue his suit.

Crosby v. City of Chicago (2020)

Eduardo Gonzalez of the Chicago police arrested Ronald Crosby after the latter fell out of a window. Mr. Crosby alleges that Mr. Gonzalez intentionally pushed him out of that window, that he had been unarmed, that Gonzalez claimed Crosby had been armed to justify defenestrating him, and that other police officers falsely corroborated Gonzalez’s lie. Based on this lie, Crosby was convicted of violating Illinois’ armed career criminal statute and sentenced to eight years of imprisonment. The conviction was subsequently reversed by the Illinois Appellate Court.

After the reversal, Crosby sued Gonzalez for improper entry and use of excessive force. Although he had (and knew he had) other possible claims against Gonzalez and Chicago, he could not assert them yet because he had not cleared his name or been released from prison. [8-9] Crosby did not sue Chicago. Nevertheless, when he settled the lawsuit for $5000, the settlement agreement listed the City as both a defendant and a party to the agreement. Crosby agreed to release “all claims he had or has” against Gonzalez, Chicago, or any of Chicago’s officers. [3]

The Supreme Court of Illinois vacated the decision reversing Crosby’s conviction. Crosby managed to secure another reversal. He then sued Gonzalez, Chicago, and the corroborating officers for lying that he was armed. Judge Virginia Kendall entered judgment against Crosby (Barrett’s opinion is vague about the procedural posture) because Crosby’s new claims were covered by the past settlement. It also ordered Crosby to reimburse the City for the $2,131.60 it had paid to print the transcript of his state court proceedings. [4]

Judge Barrett found the case very similar to Cannon v. Burge, a 2014 case in which a plaintiff settled a lawsuit against Chicago police officers for torturing him and then tried to sue them again for framing him. Based on Cannon, Barrett rejected Crosby’s arguments that his new claims did not fall within the language of the original settlement agreement. [6-7] Although Illinois law disfavours the release of future claims, Barrett held that the claims were foreseeable and so within the contemplation of the parties. As such, they were covered by the past settlement. [7-10]

Crosby also argued that he should not have to pay Chicago’s court costs because it had not shown that those costs were reasonable. Barrett dismissed this argument, because Crosby had to show not only that the costs were unreasonable but that the court had abused its discretion by ordering him to pay them. [10-11]

O’Neal v. Reilly (2020)

The background to this case is not clear from Judge Barrett’s opinion. The brief for Harry O’Neal states that during a traffic stop, sheriff’s deputy Robert Reilly broke Mr. O’Neal’s window, in response to which (according to Mr. Reilly) O’Neal punched Reilly in the head. [O’Neal Brief at 2.] O’Neal was then convicted of aggravated battery. [1] O’Neal tried to sue Reilly for allegedly violating his rights, including by lying to convict him. [O’Neal Brief at 2-4, 7-8]

After he missed deadlines and refused to respond to court requests, the court dismissed O’Neal’s lawsuit with prejudice. O’Neal’s conviction was subsequently overturned and, ten months later, he sought to amend his pending complaint. O’Neal did not seek relief from the previous judgment, raising the issue for the first time when the defendants argued he wasn’t entitled to such relief. [2]

Judge Virginia Kendall held that she could not amend the complaint, because the case was closed, and O’Neal had waived his option to seek relief from judgment. [2] Judge Barrett agreed, stating that it was well established that an issue first raised in a reply brief was waived. [3] Barrett observed that he would not have been able to obtain relief anyway, because he needed to file “within a reasonable time,” and O’Neal knew of the decision for at least eighteen months before doing anything. [4-5]

Lett v. City of Chicago (2020)

Although this case falls within a different area of law from the rest of the cases described here, I have included it because it probably arises out of either a framing or cover-up by law enforcement.

Kelvin Lett was an investigator for Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability. He was instructed to write in a report that police officers planted a gun on somebody they shot (in which case, Chicago police tried to cover up a murder). Mr. Lett did not think there was evidence to support that contention (in which case, the City might have been trying to frame a police officer). The facts of the shooting are not discussed in the opinion. Lett refused to write the report as directed and was effectively fired. [2-3] Lett sued, claiming that the Office had violated his First Amendment right to free speech.

Judge John Robert Blakey dismissed Lett’s claims with prejudice. [3] Citing Davis v. Chicago, a 2018 case in which an investigator in the same office refused to falsify reports for the benefit of police officers, Judge Barrett affirmed his decision on the same grounds: in preparing the report, Lett had not been speaking as a private citizen but acting as a public employee. [4-6] Put simply, Lett had been fired for not doing his job. Therefore, regardless of whether he’d acted justly, Lett had no free speech right for the courts to enforce.

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