Little Rock police hit with 4 suits over no-knock warrants

FILE — Little Rock Police Department headquarters are shown in this 2019 file photo.
FILE — Little Rock Police Department headquarters are shown in this 2019 file photo.

Four federal civil-rights lawsuits were filed Thursday afternoon against the Little Rock Police Department over a series of no-knock search warrants executed over the past three years.

The lawsuits were filed by nine plaintiffs and name 34 officers altogether, as well as former Police Chief Kenton Buckner and the city. One of the officers, Mark Ison, is named as a defendant in three of the lawsuits. Officers Robert Bell and Zachary Hardman are each named in two of the suits.

Though the specific allegations vary, all accuse police of providing inaccurate information to a district judge to obtain no-knock warrants, and then terrorizing people and destroying their homes in the execution of the warrants. In one case, a man who held a shotgun was shot and has required several surgeries.

Though the lawsuits were filed just before the close of business Thursday and the city attorney's office hadn't been able to view them, City Attorney Tom Carpenter noted that in all the cases, "as far as we know, an independent judge considered the evidence and granted the warrants, and that's what the Fourth Amendment requires."

He noted that they were filed after a previous lawsuit with similar allegations filed by the same attorneys, Mike Laux and Benjamin Crump, was withdrawn after a judge refused to allow the attorneys to add more plaintiffs.

Laux said Thursday that the officers "used lying, unreliable confidential informants to give [judges] information they know is bad," and, "the judges give them no-knock warrants, at great hazard and peril to everyone involved."

"The bottom line," he said, "is you have this fraternity within a fraternity, and they like to kick some ass. They tear up a place and just leave. It truly is an indefensible use of SWAT," referring to the Special Weapons and Tactics team, which the lawsuits say often assists narcotics officers in serving warrants.

The first lawsuit, randomly assigned to Chief U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr., focuses on a no-knock raid by narcotics officers at a home at 3301 S. Battery St. on Aug. 10, 2016. The plaintiffs are husband and wife Bruce Evans and Tracy Givan, who lived at the house with their two children, ages 11 and 15.

The suit alleges that Ison sought a no-knock warrant on July 26, 2016, from District Judge Alice Lightle, telling the judge that a "reliable confidential informant" told him the previous day that Givan was selling drugs out of the house. Ison also told the judge that he and the informant set up a controlled drug buy at the house on July 25 in which the informant bought $100 worth of marijuana from Givan.

The lawsuit alleges that no drugs had ever been sold out of the house and that neither of the adults had a criminal record, but that officers simultaneously burst through the house's front and back doors about 1 p.m. on Aug. 10, with assault rifles drawn and raised. The officers screamed commands at the shocked family and grabbed the two adults and the two children and forced them to the ground, then handcuffed the adults and began searching the home, it says.

The officers, who didn't identify themselves as police, found "recreational marijuana, prescribed medication and a gun," but no "massive quantities" of the drug that Ison had told the judge they would find, the lawsuit states. It says Evans was charged with possession of drugs and a gun, and was jailed for seven days before he could post bond, then was "forced to accept a plea deal based on the recreational marijuana discovered."

The second lawsuit, assigned to U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr., alleges that Ison and four other officers, including Bell and Hardman, executed an unconstitutional no-knock raid on Feb. 16, 2018, at the home of an 82-year-old woman and her caretaker at 9806 Labette Drive. Shawn Weatherford, a man who was resident Faye Hernandez's grandson and caretaker Candice Caldwell's boyfriend, was also there.

Hernandez had lived at the home for 45 years, the suit noted.

It states that on Feb. 2, 2018, Ison submitted an affidavit to District Judge Hugh Finkelstein in support of a no-knock warrant, saying he had been contacted by a "reliable cooperating individual" who alleged that methamphetamine was being sold by Weatherford at the house. Ison also said that he, another officer and the informant had made a controlled buy of $60 worth of the drug at the home on Feb. 2.

On Feb 16, without knowing whether Weatherford might have a gun or if any children, elderly people, disabled people or pets were present, narcotics officers busted into the home, where Caldwell was alone in her bedroom with her dog, the suit states. It says that upon hearing loud explosions and people running through the house, Caldwell was terrified and grabbed the dog, then begged officers who burst through her bedroom door with guns raised, screaming instructions at her, not to shoot her dog.

A photo of an armed officer surprising the woman, obtained from a home security system, is attached to the suit.

The lawsuit accuses the officers of "trashing" the house, scorching the carpeting with a flash-bang grenade and even destroying a thermostat because they thought it was a video camera "that might capture their unconstitutional raid."

The officers got a ladder from the garage and used it to climb to the roof to get inside through a second-story window, it says. The suit also alleges that the officers shot holes in the 82-year-old woman's ceiling "for no apparent reason," causing about $7,800 in damage.

No drugs or contraband were found at the home, but when officers learned from Caldwell that the house had a video-camera system, they removed the system and "absconded with it," the suit alleges, adding that a judge later ordered it returned to the woman. It says that while Caldwell was initially charged with possession of a controlled substance, the case was later dismissed.

"Since September 1, 2016, LRPD officers have engaged in a pattern of harassment and intimidation directed at" the three plaintiffs, the lawsuit states, saying the harassment includes "marked police vehicles ominously cruising past the residence," slowly circling it and parking near it for long periods of time, "for no legitimate reason."

A third lawsuit, assigned to U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson, focuses on the execution of a no-knock search warrant at a townhouse at 1400 Old Forge Road on Sept. 5, 2017. It says Bell cited information from a "reliable confidential informant" for obtaining the warrant from Finkelstein for Apartment 602, and that the warrant was served in the middle of the day while Derrick Davis, the resident, was at home with his fiancee, preparing food in his kitchen.

The lawsuit states that his front door suddenly flew off its hinges, striking Davis, and then 25 officers burst in with rifles raised at the couple. Again, the suit cites significant property damage. It notes that narcotics officers found only "a small bag of marijuana" and charged Davis with "multiple crimes," but that the case against him was later thrown out of court.

The fourth lawsuit, which also was assigned to Moody, names 28 officers and indicates more may be named. It centers on a no-knock raid executed about 6:30 a.m. on Sept. 1, 2016 at 3220 King Road, the home of Susan Davenport and her husband, Chris.

It says an officer had obtained a no-knock warrant from Lightle to raid a "shop" attached to a residence with that address where an informant claimed Susan Davenport sold methamphetamine.

However, the lawsuit states, the "shop" described in the affidavit was actually another residence at 3114 King Road that was occupied by Lloyd St. Clair and Floyd St. Clair. The suit contends that the officer, Amber Kalmer, didn't tell the judge that officers intended to simultaneously raid two separate dwellings with the warrant, but that's exactly what SWAT officers did.

The lawsuit alleges that at the St. Clair home, officer Steven Thomas saw Lloyd St. Clair in the process of getting out of bed, and backed away, then fired at least 10 rounds from an assault rifle through a wall into the bedroom, hitting the man in his back and abdomen "while he was in his bedroom trying to protect himself."

The lawsuit states, "Lloyd never raised a gun toward" Thomas, but doesn't mention that he had a shotgun.

Meanwhile, inside the neighboring home at 3220 King Road, the Davenports were awakened by the bang of the flash grenade and officers running through the house, and soon were handcuffed while the officers searched the home, the suit said. It said that "no massive quantities" of methamphetamine were found at either residence, and that Lloyd St. Clair, who underwent several surgeries for his gunshot wounds, was charged with aggravated assault.

Metro on 08/09/2019

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