Our nation’s police officers are often attacked for supposedly violating constitutional rights. But who defends police officers when their constitutional rights are trampled?
In a murder investigation taking place in Phoenix, Arizona, three police officers have had their rights trampled by none other than the Phoenix Police Department (PPD), and Judicial Watch is battling in court to protect them.
Last week we filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Arizona on behalf of three Phoenix police officers forced by the City of Phoenix PPD to give DNA samples in the controversial “death unknown” case of fellow police officer Sergeant Sean Drenth. The lawsuit alleges that PPD management forced the officers to surrender their DNA in violation of their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
The plaintiffs in our lawsuit are officers Daniel Bill, Bryan Hanania, and Michael Malpass. Each of these officers responded to an “officer down” call the night of October 18, 2010. Importantly, none of them came into direct contact with the slain officer, his vehicle, or weapons. The PPD has repeatedly stated that none of the plaintiffs are suspects in Sergeant Sean Drenth’s death, which makes the PPD’s behavior all the more odd.
Sergeant Drenth was found dead outside of his vehicle in a vacant lot one-half mile south of the State Capitol building.
Drenth had been shot in the head. His shotgun was lying lengthwise on his body, centered on his chest with the muzzle pointed towards his chin. A single bullet from the gun had entered just under his chin and burst out through the top of his skull. The sergeant’s secondary weapon was on the ground next to his right ankle, with his handcuffs, cell phone, and flashlight nearby.
Shortly after the discovery of Drenth’s body, more than 300 persons – including then-Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, PPD officers, City of Phoenix fire fighters, City of Phoenix personnel, and Arizona State Capitol police officers and security personnel – converged upon the area. As JW notes in its lawsuit, the officers were among the first responders, but did not come in close proximity to the body:
Plaintiffs Bill and Hanania entered the lot from S. 18th Avenue, but did not proceed beyond the deceased officer’s patrol car. At no point were Plaintiffs Bill and Hanania ever closer than fifteen (15) feet from Sergeant Drenth’s body. They never touched or were closer than fifteen (15) feet from the shotgun that lay across Sergeant Drenth’s chest or the secondary weapon that lay near Sergeant Drenth’s ankle. Nor did they ever touch or enter Sergeant Drenth’s patrol car.
Plaintiff Malpass did not enter the lot. He was never closer than thirty (30) feet from Sergeant Drenth’s body. He never touched or was closer than thirty (30) feet from the shotgun or the secondary weapon found with Sergeant Drenth’s body, and he never touched or entered Sergeant Drenth’s patrol car.
Later in the evening, when Drenth’s service weapon was found near the railroad tracks south of the vacant lot, according the complaint, “The team moved to the south side of the tracks in order to avoid disturbing the area near the service weapon.”
Subsequent to the searches, the teams in which the plaintiffs were included provided detailed reports as to their actions and whereabouts throughout the evening of Sergeant Denth’s death on October 18.
According to the complaint, “These reports were readily available to PPD management.”
Beginning on December 3, 2010, the PPD begin requesting DNA samples “for exclusionary purposes” from all PDD officers at the crime scene, including officers Bill, Hanania, and Malpass.
In April 2011, PPD employees, including the plaintiffs, who had declined to provide DNA were delivered a memo requesting immediate compliance. That memo was presented to Officers Bill, Hanania, and Malpass on April 18, 2011, at which time each of the officers again informed the investigating detectives of their specific locations and activities on the night of Sergeant Drenth’s death.
On August 8, 2011, the PPD requested and received orders from the Maricopa County Superior Court to detain officers Bill, Hanania, and Malpass in order to take samples of their DNA. One week later, the PPD detained Bill, Hanania, and Malpass and obtained the DNA samples against their will. Under Arizona law, the DNA samples can be kept for up to 55 years.
So, in sum, our clients were never near Sergeant Denth’s body. The PPD has said they are not suspects in the death of Sergeant Denth. And yet, the PPD forced the officers to submit DNA samples against their will and in violation of their rights.
According to the Judicial Watch complaint filed on December 7, 2012, PPD management:
[D]eprived Plaintiffs Bill, Hanania, and Malpass of their rights under the U.S. Constitution by subjecting them to buccal swabs for purposes of DNA analysis without obtaining search warrants, without probable cause, and without having a non-law enforcement special need.
Simply because officers swear their allegiance to uphold the law doesn’t mean they surrender their rights to be protected under it. The Fourth Amendment cannot be selectively applied by the City of Phoenix. Citizens have a right to be secure in their persons – and this includes their DNA. (Judicial Watch’s Arizona counsel is Bob Kavanagh.)
This is a cutting-edge lawsuit that has received a great deal of media coverage in Phoenix. It is a case that deserves nationwide attention.