MILWAUKEE (CN) – A federal judge ruled Friday that former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke will go to trial later this month over claims he threatened a Wisconsin man online after an airport encounter stemming from the man shaking his head at the sheriff during a flight last year.
Daniel Black, represented by William Sulton of Peterson, Johnson & Murray, filed a federal lawsuit last February alleging First, Fourth and 14th Amendment violations against Clarke, Milwaukee County and six sheriff deputies.
Black’s allegations centered on questioning at the Milwaukee airport after a flight from Dallas, as well as the former sheriff’s subsequent social media posts.
“While boarding the flight, Black saw a man that looked like Sheriff Clarke wearing clothes emblazoned with the logo and colors of the Dallas Cowboys football team. Black asked the man if he was Sheriff Clarke, and Sheriff Clarke responded that he was,” the complaint states. “Black moved towards the rear of the airplane and shook his head. Sheriff Clarke asked Black if he had a problem. Black shook his head no and continued walking and took a seat in the rear of the airplane.”
Once Black got off the airplane, he says Clarke was waiting for him near the gate and motioned for deputy sheriffs to stop him. Black claims two deputies interrogated him about his political opinions.
Black later posted about the encounter on a public Facebook group page: “When we landed at Mitchell International, I had a welcoming party of about six cops and drug/bomb dogs, who questioned me for about 15 minutes before escorting me out. Just posting to let y’all know be careful around our Sheriff, he needs to be in a safe space at all times.”
Days after, Black filed a formal complaint in Milwaukee about the incident.
In response, the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office posted a link on Facebook to the complaint and a comment from Clarke, which allegedly said: “Next time [Black] or anyone else pulls this stunt on a plane they may get knocked out. The Sheriff . . . does not have to wait for some goof to assault him. He reserves the reasonable right to pre-empt a possible assault.”
The next day, Clarke posted on the same account, “Cheer up, snowflake . . . if Sheriff Clarke were to really harass you, you wouldn’t be around to whine about it.”
Black says the post was threatening and did not reflect what actually happened on the airplane, and also claims he has become the target of threatening and anti-Semitic comments online.
On Friday, U.S. District Judge J.P. Stadtmueller dismissed Milwaukee County and the six deputies from the case, writing that Black’s Fourth Amendment claim alleging that Milwaukee County should be held liable for the airport field interview failed because no violation occurred.
The judge also dismissed Black’s unlawful seizure claim under the Fourteenth Amendment because the encounter with deputies did not amount to a seizure, “was relatively brief and occurred in an area of the airport that was open to the public,” according to the 27-page ruling.
However, regarding Black’s First Amendment retaliation claim over Clarke’s Facebook posts, Stadtmueller wrote that “the court cannot say Clarke’s posts were so trivial that no jury could find them to be sufficiently threatening to deter future speech.”
“Clarke’s posts could reasonably be understood as a ‘threat, coercion, or intimidation that punishment . . . will immediately follow,’” the ruling states. “They say as much on their face, and in aggressive and combative language.”
Stadtmueller ruled that Black’s retaliation claim will proceed to trial on Jan. 22.
The controversial former sheriff has been under fire in a slew of lawsuits filed against him over his management of the Milwaukee County jail, where four inmates have died since 2016. He was sued last March over a man who died of thirst in solitary confinement and was hit with another lawsuit that same month from a woman who claims she was shackled while giving birth in the jail. Before that, he was sued in December 2016 over a baby who died just hours after being born in the jail.
Black’s attorney, Sulton, declined to comment on the ruling. The sheriff’s department did not immediately respond Monday to an email request for comment.