A federal judge raised questions about an Albemarle police officer’s unprecedented late-night search of two African-American plaintiffs’ home for a piece of paper, and said a jury may find it was based on racial profiling.
Fewer than two weeks before trial date, Judge Glen Conrad seemed inclined to allow Bianca Johnson and Delmar Canada’s lawsuit against Officer Andrew Holmes to go forward, but said the case against Albemarle County was a closer call.
In court September 21, Holmes’ attorney, Julian Harf, acknowledged that his client was looking for drugs when he obtained a search warrant to seek a notice of driver’s license suspension that Canada told him he’d never received when Holmes pulled him over April 26, 2014.
Holmes had been outside the 7-Eleven on Greenbrier running license plate numbers of parked cars. He discovered a BMW there belonged to Johnson, looked up her associates, found her fiancé, Canada, his photo and information that his license was suspended. When Canada came out of the store and drove off in the car, Holmes pulled him over.
The next day, Holmes obtained a search warrant for the home Johnson and Canada shared, and executed the warrant on a Friday night after 11.
A search warrant for a DMV notice had never been done before, according to the deposition of a veteran Albemarle officer. “This is unusual,” said Conrad, who had never seen such a request in his years as a magistrate. “Was there any inkling drugs were involved?” he asked.
Holmes wanted to work in drug interdiction, and had applied to the JADE—the Jefferson Area Drug Enforcement task force—said Harf. “This officer was interested in drugs. He knows if he goes at night there’s more likelihood he’ll find drugs.”
“It seems a jury could say Officer Holmes saw an African-American driving a very expensive nice automobile and assumed he was dealing drugs,” said the judge.
Harf also asserted that statistics showing Holmes ticketed and arrested blacks far more often than his colleagues—and that he’d received complaints—were irrelevant. Holmes is being sued in three other cases by black plaintiffs who allege he targeted them because of their race and the cars they were driving.
Whether the county is liable for Holmes’ behavior and condoned it because of a “culture of racism,” as the plaintiffs contend, “is a close issue,” said Conrad.
Holmes received 11 complaints in 2014 and seven in 2015, yet he said his supervisors never said anything to him about them, said plaintiffs’ attorney Jeff Fogel.
Conrad had not ruled at press time. The case is scheduled for a two-day jury trial beginning October 2.