False imprisonment: County settles lawsuit against five cops

Benjamin Burruss sits in the same truck he was in in 2013 when Albemarle police held him for two hours until a SWAT team exploded a flash grenade and broke his window. staff photo Benjamin Burruss sits in the same truck he was in in 2013 when Albemarle police held him for two hours until a SWAT team exploded a flash grenade and broke his window. staff photo

Benjamin Burruss sat in his car in the Comfort Inn parking lot surrounded by Albemarle police. His employer had asked police to check on him when he didn’t show up for work. Burruss told the officers he did not intend to harm himself or anyone else, and the 12-gauge shotgun in his backseat was for a hunting trip.

For two hours, police refused to let him leave, then deployed a stinger—a strip that shreds tires—under his rear wheels, threw a flash bomb, smashed his car windows, dragged him out, and took him to the hospital for a 72-hour mental health hold.

Five years after the November 21, 2013, standoff that Burruss, 61, said left him with PTSD, the county and five police officers settled his lawsuit against them for an undisclosed amount.

“Hopefully this case results in the police not using emergency custody orders to detain people who are not mentally ill, have not committed any crime, and just want to be left alone,” says Burruss in a release.

Burruss says he’d missed a few days of work at Northrop Grumman, where he held a security clearance, because he was adjusting to a new medication for depression, and he was staying at the motel on Pantops because of some marital issues.

When surrounded by what he estimated to be a dozen cops, he refused to get out of his car and said he didn’t want to talk to them and wanted to leave. Officer Garnett “Chip” Riley at one point said, “We got nothin’,” and, “I got no reason to hold him,” according to the complaint.

But rather than release him, Officer Jatana Rigsby called Burruss’ wife and asked her to obtain an emergency custody order, alleging he was “acting irrationally,” according to court documents.

County cops Riley, Rigsby, Kanie Richardson, Robert Warfel, and Captain Pete Mainzer were defendants in Burruss’ lawsuit, along with Albemarle County. The suit was filed in federal court for unlawful seizure, false imprisonment, and battery.

In April 2016, Judge Glen Conrad gave the officers and the county qualified immunity for their actions after the emergency custody order was issued, but questioned holding Burruss for over an hour beforehand when they were aware they didn’t have probable cause to prevent him from leaving. The case had been scheduled for a four-day jury trial October 16.

Burruss was represented by the Rutherford Institute and Michael Winget-Hernandez. Rutherford founder John Whitehead describes the settlement as “favorable to us but we can’t give details.”

He blames the incident on police militarization and overuse of SWAT tactics in a situation that could have been handled non-confrontationally. “Obviously the police went too far,” he says. “They smashed his window and put him in a mental health facility.”

Whitehead says he hopes the settlement says to police in future similar situations, “slow down.”

When asked about the settlement and whether it would affect future police actions in similar situations, Albemarle County spokesperson Emily Kilroy says, “The orders that were entered by the court are a dismissal as to the county and as to the individual defendants. There is no further comment.”—

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