Leader Blues

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

TOP STORY >> Have a beer before suit goes to trial?

Leader executive editor

The Jacksonville police officers who arrested Rizelle Aaron four years ago in Dupree Park committed several blunders, a judge ruled last week, allowing Aaron’s lawsuit against the cops to proceed for violating his constitutional rights and for falsely arresting him on what may have been trumped-up charges.

Aaron is the good Samaritan who tried to break up a drug deal at the park on Sept. 15, 2005. He confronted the drug dealers and then called police, who promptly arrested Aaron for no reason at all, Judge Brian S. Miller ruled.

He said Aaron does have a case against the officers, but not the city or the police department. The JPD later dropped all charges against Aaron, including criminal impersonation of a police officer. It turns out, he wasn’t lying when he told the officers he was a part-time cop.

Miller was ready to try the two police officers, Lieut. Bill Shelley and Officer Gregory Rozenski, this week, but their lawyer is appealing Miller’s ruling to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, and it could take up to a year before that court rules on the case.

Rozenski is still with the police department, but Shelley has left the force and has a job with the city’s public-works department.

In a sharply worded order against the pair for making an arrest without probable cause, Judge Miller found that Aaron was, in fact, a part-time officer with the England Police Department. The JPD eventually made the connection, but not before two of its finest busted Aaron.

“Instead of verifying that Aaron was a Part Time II officer with the England Police Department,” the judge noted, “the record shows that Shelley engaged in what can only be described as a Deputy Dawg, Keystone Kops type of questioning of Aaron regarding Aaron’s law-enforcement credentials.”

Aaron had gone to Dupree Park with his family to watch his son’s football game. The last thing he wanted them to see was a drug deal in the parking lot.

Shelley and Rozenski charged Aaron with four counts of criminal impersonation for nailing the four alleged drug dealers who had crack cocaine and other drugs in their car and admitted to police they had the drugs. The police report identifies them as the victims.

Aaron was also charged with four additional counts of false imprisonment, but, surprisingly, only one count of terroristic threatening. Why not 500 counts of terroristic threatening — for everyone who was at the park that day?

“There is no question that the Fourth Amendment right of citizens not to be arrested without probable cause is … clearly established,” the judge wrote. “A reasonable jury could find that on Sept. 15, 2005, it was objectively unreasonable for Shelley and Rozenski to believe that Aaron had committed a crime and that Shelley and Rozenski therefore lacked probable cause to arrest Aaron.

“The court believes (Shelley and Rozenski) were so disturbed by Aaron’s lack of police identification that they released the suspected drug dealers and ordered Aaron back to the park and arrested him,” Miller wrote in his order.

“There is nothing in the record remotely showing that Aaron told anyone he was a police officer for the purpose of injuring or defrauding anyone,” Judge Miller wrote. “Indeed, it is undisputed that he saw drug activity, and he called the police to the scene. The mere fact that he could not provide police identification to the Jacksonville police did not give Shelley and Rozenski probable cause to arrest him.”

Here’s another important point, although Miller doesn’t mention it: Like anyone else in Arkansas, Aaron could make a citizen’s arrest. He had the guts to confront the drug dealers and told them they were in a heap of trouble. He called the police, and for his troubles he found himself in handcuffs.

Miller, who is from Helena-West Helena, is the state’s newest federal judge: He’s tough, but fair — and very busy.

He will soon decide the long-running Pulaski County school-desegregation case, which could lead to an independent Jacksonville-area school district if he rules the three county districts no longer need court supervision.

He’s also been assigned the case of Damien Echols, the accused West Memphis child murderer who is facing the death penalty but hopes to have his conviction overturned.

Will Aaron’s case ever get to Miller’s court? Or will the two sides come together over a few beers and hash out their differences, the way Professor Henry Louis Gates of Harvard and police Sgt. James Crowley did last summer at the White House after their celebrated case made national headlines?

The Jacksonville case may not cry out for presidential intervention, but it does raise some important issues, such as the right of a citizen not to be picked up by cops just because they think he’s acting out of turn.

Was somebody protecting the drug dealers? What if Aaron had arrested Shelley and Rozenski instead? Imagine how Judge Miller would have ruled in that case.