Suit cites brutality, ‘treason’ by St. Tammany gendarmes
A police brutality victim is praying federal lawsuit will finally put an end to what he called a deeply corrupt and treasonous ways of local officials who govern Louisiana parish criminal justice system.
“This is a civil action to enjoin and redress Gates’s deprivation of rights, under color of state law, by local authorities,” said Daniel G. Abel, attorney for plaintiff Shane M. Gates. “Color of law” refers to an appearance of legal power to act, but which may operate in violation of law.
The lawsuit was filed in Baton Rouge this week against St. Tammany Parish officials; Judge Richard A. Swartz, Clerk of the Court Marie-Elise Prieto, District Attorney Walter P. Reed, Assistant District Attorney Nicholas F. Noriea, and others on eight counts of civil rights violations and one count of treason, he said.
“The complaint alleges that all official defendants acted willfully in combination and in concert to deceive the court and the jury, thereby allowing the commission of unlawful acts designed to shield Sheriff Rodney “Jack” Strain, his deputies, and its insurance company from liability,” he said.
The district attorney’s law firm represents the insurance carrier for Sheriff Strain, he said. Strain’s counsel Charles M. “Chuck” Hughes Jr. and his law firm represents the 22nd Judicial Court Bench and its judges, he continued. “It appears they all work for the same insurance company.”
Reed specifically used his official and private positions in violation of the Hobbs Act, Abel said. The Hobbs Act prohibits public officials from obtaining payment or services in exchange for official acts.
Improper ex parte communications led Louisiana Attorney General James D. “Buddy” Caldwell, in his capacity as attorney for the judges of the 22nd Judicial District, to become engaged in Gates’s case, as well, said Abel. “Involving Caldwell’s office is impermissible conflicts by statute.”
“The sheriff perjured himself in affidavits and in statements to the court, allowed his officers to alter evidence in complicity with Noriea Jr., Schwarz and Prieto, and committed other crimes and acts which involve the alteration of testimony evidence and public records,” he said.
“Noriea maliciously prosecuted Gates participating in proven personal alteration, destruction, fabrication of evidence, and withholding of evidence in order to cover-up unlawful acts committed by co-defendants,” he said.
Such actions and conspiracy as judge and officers impugn the integrity of the entire legal system, he said. “Actions that are so egregious it constitutes treason under the laws of the Constitution as established by the United States Supreme Court.”
Specially the treason charge is rooted in the Cooper v. Aaron (1958) decision: “No state legislator or executive or judicial officer can war against the Constitution without violating his undertaking to support it.”
Traffic stop turns violent
Its siren was turned off when he noticed a police car in his rear view mirror while traveling home on Interstate-12 in Covington, LA on the evening of Nov. 16, 2006, said Gates, a 38-year-old investigations-law firm manager. “At first I changed lanes to get out of his way but when the officer indicated that I pull my car over to the side of the road, I immediately pulled-over.”
Deputy Nathan Miller approached his vehicle and told him to stay inside, he said. “A few minutes later while I was sitting still, Miller opened the unlocked driver’s side door and without speaking, pulled me outside of the car, put me in hand-cuffs and placed me in the back of his car.”
It was after two additional police officers arrived at the scene that he was brutally attacked by the three men, he said. “I was handcuffed and defenseless.”
They said they were transporting him from one police car to another and Deputy Roger Gottardi struck the first blow, he said. “He smashed my face into the 210-degree hood of his car.”
“He smashed my face like a pancake in cooking oil,” Gates said.
This torrid story gets worse, he said. “I was pepper-sprayed in the face; spun around and thrown to the ground; stomped on my rib cage; and Gottardi used my hair to pound my face into the pavement at least three times before I lost consciousness.”
“I was begging for my life,” said the Loyola University graduate.
He woke up handcuffed and shackled in the back of a cop car, he said. “I was then brought into Louisiana Heart Hospital in Lacombe by at least five police officers.”
“I was bleeding and swallowing blood and the officers were ridiculing me in front of hospital staff – it was humiliating,” he said.
A computed tomography scan was taken, Gates said. “When the CT scan came back with no facial fractures, the police officers celebrated with high-fives.”
After waiting four to five hours he was transferred by ambulance to Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg, Miss., to be seen by a plastic surgeon there, he said. “With seven other hospitals closer to Heart, and at least some of those hospitals having plastic surgeons on call, transporting me out-of-state on a one-hour, 45 minutes drive north to Forrest seemed unnecessary.”
The married, father of two children said he was astonished to learn that the hospital staff at Forrest was misinformed about the incident, he said. “Administrators were told I was drunk or on drugs, involved in a car crash without my seat belt strapped in, and went through the windshield.”
Police officers interrogated him for several hours and demanded that he purport to forget everything that happened, Gates said. “One of the officers who beat me stood at the foot of my bed taunting, “How convenient you cannot remember.”
Forrest medical records indicate that a complex laceration to the upper and lower eyelid on the left side of Gates’s face was not evaluated at prior facility due to swelling, he said. “After my eye was pried open for an exam immediate surgery was performed.”
The extent of his injuries so serious that his wife did not even recognize him, he said. “There was skin pealed away from my skull and hanging from a swollen hematoma at the top of my eye.”
“I was bleeding for three days and my eye did not open for over 20 days,” he said.
The unwarranted and brutal beating by St. Tammany deputies has caused two eye injuries that required multiple surgeries and 27 stitches in total, Gates said. “My treating physicians’ prognosis is four corrective surgeries and diagnosis permanent nerve damage.”
The miscarriage of justice and vendetta against him that ensued after the police brutality incident, has been extremely harsh and eye-opening, he said. “This is all unbelievable to me.”
Federal lawsuit filed seeking damages against Strain, Reed and others
The 2007 civil rights complaint alleges that Strain in collusion with Reed did repeatedly fabricate and manufacture facts, affidavits, charges, and reports in order to shield the deputies from civil rights claims and otherwise prevent Gates redress for violations of his constitutional rights, Gates said.
Before the defendants could answer his complaint, the judge stayed the matter until the criminal case against him is over, he said. “The stay has permitted Strain and Reed to refrain from answering the complaint since its filing over six years ago.”
He was charged with driving while intoxicated, obstructing a highway of commerce, and was prosecuted for felony aggravated flight although he was never cited or arrested for it, he said. “The Clerk of the Court would later admit the error on the aggravated flight charge, but failed to correct it.”
Gates was taken into police custody, handcuffed and placed inside a 3-foot by 3-foot cell known as a “squirrel cage” for a couple of hours, he said. “Inside the cage, I could not sit nor stand, just wait.” Squirrel cages have since been removed from the parish jail when the Department of Justice determined their use unconstitutional.
Gates said he was then placed in an 8-foot by 10-foot holding cell with about 26 men until he was able to post a signature bond four to five hours later.
This was just the beginning of a long list of intimidation tactics enforced by St. Tammany officials, he said. “My right to a speedy trial and grand jury indictment were suspended.”
The judge either refused to hear motions for relief or denied them, he said. “I was denied full discovery.”
No one is above the law, he said. “If authorities fail to provide the honest services we expect from them then they are making a mockery of the law, and they ought to be held accountable.”
Not guilty verdict, subsequent charges
The evidence of malfeasance by St. Tammany officials in the first criminal case against Gates was clear and overwhelming enough to show an impartial jury that Gates was innocent of wrongdoing, said Abel. “After deliberating for just 30 minutes, a 12-member jury returned a not guilty verdict at the conclusion of trial in July 2012.”
A not guilty verdict cannot stop the greedy, powerful St. Tammany officials from maliciously prosecuting more cases, he said. “Noriea is attempting to use evidence that has already been proven to be fabricated, altered or destroyed from the first trial in the second trial against Gates.”
In order to get some sort of conviction to protect the insurance company and the sheriff, Reed would try Gates again and Judge Swartz condoned a trial with the identical witnesses and identical evidence used at trial in 2012, said the civil rights lawyer. “Seven years after the initial police brutality incident and one year since a not guilty verdict, Gates is being charged with misdemeanor resisting arrest.”
The misdemeanor charge is classic double jeopardy and operates as a dodge to excuse the civil suit’s claim of police brutality, he said. Double jeopardy is a procedural defense that forbids a defendant from being tried again on the same or similar charges following a legitimate acquittal or conviction.
Abel said they filed a motion to dismiss the second criminal case based on the double jeopardy rule, but the court denied their application, and a misdemeanor trial is scheduled for Aug. 12. “This is an attempt by the state to keep the criminal case erroneously alive.”
Local news sources described the actions of St. Tammany deputies as police brutality and troubling, said Abel. “This eight-year prosecution has been characterized by the destruction and fabrication of evidence, and the fabrication and perjury of testimony given by officers, attorneys, and public officials while under oath and overlooked by the trial court judge.”
“There is a pattern of behavior at the 22nd Judicial District Court that shows fabrication of evidence and mishandling of files by St. Tammany officials,” said Terry M. King, member of Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany. The goal of CCST is to champion transparent and good governance.
CCST and other activist groups are paying close attention to Gates’s case, he said. “We held a couple of press conferences and Louisiana United International issued a well researched analysis and report outlining the offenses committed by parish officials during Gates’s trial.”
King was involved in exposing a corrupt parish coroner who took unwarranted and excessive salary payments from tax payer funds. The state legislature will be issuing its final report against the coroner soon, he said. “We expect it to be worse than we thought.”
The former environmental auditor said local civil rights groups are identifying and collecting evidence of official misconduct across the parish. “Parish officials are violating state law and injuring public records without care or concern.”
“The most basic problem facing St. Tammany today is the un-holy trinity between Strain, Reed, and Prieto who are collectively destroying the fundamental criminal justice system for this part of the state,” King said.