A federal judge issued an opinion last week that allows a lawsuit against Albemarle County and police officer Andrew Holmes to proceed on its racial profiling claim, while giving Holmes qualified immunity on claims he violated the plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment rights when he showed up at their home around midnight to look for a DMV license suspension notice.
Holmes pulled over Delmar Canada April 26, 2014, and ticketed him for driving on a suspended license. The next day Holmes obtained a search warrant and asserted that from his training and nine years of law enforcement experience, he was aware that people kept driver’s license suspension documents in their homes, according to a brief.
Five days later, on a Friday night, Holmes and three other officers showed up at the Turtle Creek condo Canada shared with Bianca Johnson, and detained the couple for two hours while they searched the residence.
Judge Glen Conrad ruled that Holmes had qualified immunity in the unlawful search and seizure claims because “the doctrine gives ample room for mistaken judgments ‘by protecting all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.’” Conrad said the plaintiffs’ argument that the officer should have known there was no probable cause for the search warrant was “unpersuasive.”
Canada and Johnson gained more traction on their equal protection claim that Holmes’ application for the warrant and the search itself were motivated by their race. Wrote Conrad, “The plaintiffs allege that Holmes has ‘a history and practice of targeting African-American males for vehicle stops and intrusive searches.’”
He also denied Albemarle’s motion to dismiss the suit against the county on the grounds that “numerous complaints by African-Americans” had been lodged with the police department before this incident, and the county, by not taking corrective or disciplinary action, condoned his actions.
“We can hold the county liable because they were aware of the complaints,” says Jeff Fogel, who represents Canada and Johnson. “I know a number of complaints were filed because I have the names of people who did.”
Through discovery, says Fogel, he will scrutinize all summons Holmes issued over the past five years for race.
“In a sense, it’s an important hurdle but we still have a lot of work to prove what we’ve alleged,” he says. The case was really about racial profiling, he says, and he’s “quite content” with the judge’s ruling.
Jim Guynn, who represents Holmes and the county, says he’s pleased about “two-thirds” of the judge’s ruling. “It’s very early in the case and the fact the judge thought any of it could be dismissed is a good thing for the defendants,” he says.
As the case proceeds, he says he’ll give the judge another opportunity to dismiss the suit.
Holmes still faces two other racial profiling lawsuits, and Conrad said he would rule on the motions to dismiss those separately. In both those cases, the plaintiffs contend Holmes pulled them over, claimed he smelled marijuana and held them for two hours without turning up any drugs.
Johnson is happy the racial profiling part of the suit can proceed. “We can bring attention to how the police are abusing their power and stopping African-Americans,” she says. “[Holmes] is well-known in the community for targeting African-American men.”