Police Suicide Excluded from Drug Raid Suit

     (CN) – Fayette County, Pa. may preclude evidence of a police officer’s recent suicide as it continues to litigate a case stemming from the seizure of drugs and drug paraphernalia during the Church of Universal Love and Music’s “funk fest,” a federal judge ruled.
     On Aug. 1, 2009, the Fayette County Drug Task Force raided the nondenominational, interfaith Church of Universal Love and Music’s (CULM) outdoor “funk fest,” which drew a crowd of about 800 to founder William D. Pritts’s 147-acre property in Bullskin, Pa.
     Officials seized 76 bags of marijuana and 1,090 smoking devices and charged 22 parishioners with drug offenses, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune.
     The raid occurred five months after county officials agreed to pay $75,000 to settle Pritts’s religious discrimination claim after a prolonged zoning dispute. Pritts, who claims the church forbids illegal drug use, later agreed to a permanent ban on outdoor concerts.
     Pritts and 14 others then sued the task force and county, as well as then-District Attorney and current state judge Nancy Vernon, First Assistant District Attorney Mark Brooks, and police officers Ryan Reese and Autumn Fike, in federal court.
     The complaint asserts violations of the concertgoers’ First Amendment rights to freedom of religion, speech, and association and their Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures and malicious prosecution. Senior U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose dismissed the claims against Brooks and Vernon in April 2011 and dismissed the tortious interference claim months later.
     In August 2012, Ambrose found that the task force relied on an invalid “all persons” search warrant, but left it to a jury to decide the civil rights claims.
     “The affidavit does not state, nor do the facts recited therein reasonably lead to the conclusion, that evidence of illegal activity would be found upon every person at the ‘Funk Fest,’ or even every person in the vending, stage, or camping area of the CULM property,” Ambrose wrote. “The facts stated in the affidavit simply could not lead one to analogize the subject premises during music concerts, to locations such as an apartment used as a crack house, or a barn used as a methamphetamine lab.”
     The next month, Fike committed suicide . The defendants filed motions in limine to preclude evidence of 1) Fike’s cause of death; 2) the First Amendment retaliation claim and republican County Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink’s related testimony; and 3) a Fourth Amendment claim on behalf of the church and plaintiff Monica Wright.
     Ambrose denied all the motions but the one regarding Fike Thursday, tossing aside the argument that Zimmerlink knows of no illegal motivation by the other commissioners.
     “As plaintiffs point out, Ms. Zimmerlink’s testimony, as a former county commissioner, is relevant to the background of this matter and the parties’ history,” Ambrose wrote. “Thus, she shall not be precluded from testifying at trial.”
     Wright may pursue a Fourth Amendment claim, the ruling states.
     “Ms. Wright alleges that she was ordered to the ground by visibly armed officers,” Ambrose wrote. “I have held this sufficient to support a claim for a Fourth Amendment violation. The question has been neither raised nor ruled on since that holding issued. Accordingly, the fact that Ms. Wright was not actually searched does not preclude her from pursuing a Fourth Amendment claim.”
     But the defendants may exclude evidence of Fike’s suicide, the judge ruled. “Plaintiffs proffer that the fact of Ms. Fike’s suicide is relevant as evidence of guilt over the events that are the subject of this litigation,” Ambrose wrote. “To the extent that this evidence is relevant, however, I find that its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. Accordingly, I will exclude the evidence pursuant to Rule 403.”

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