ACLU-RI Settles Suit Against North Smithfield Police Over Falsely Labeling Resident “Unstable” And “Dangerous”

November 21, 2019 1:15 pm

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The ACLU of Rhode Island today announced the favorable settlement of a federal lawsuit filed last year on behalf of North Smithfield resident Jason Richer, challenging the police department’s refusal to remove from its files a note falsely claiming that he was “dangerous,” “psychologically unstable,” and had numerous weapons at his house. Since the purpose of such notes is to alert police officers of possible dangers when they interact with individuals, the suit raised concerns that it “increase[d] the possibility that a police officer, believing Mr. Richer to be psychologically unstable . . . and heavily armed, may overreact” if they were called to his house, or otherwise interacted with him, for any reason.

In settling the case, the police department agreed to remove the note and pay $3,000 in attorneys’ fees. Earlier this year, a federal jury awarded Richer $20,000 in damages in a related ACLU-sponsored lawsuit against the same department. In that case, the police department had – for six years – refused to return lawfully-possessed weapons they seized from him, demanding instead that he obtain a court order. A court ruled that practice unconstitutional. The note deeming Richer “dangerous” was uncovered while ACLU attorneys were litigating the weapon seizure lawsuit on his behalf.

The note and seizure date back to an incident in 2008 where police responded to Richer’s house after his now ex-wife called to express concern that he had taken an overdose of pills. Although Richer explained that he was not suicidal and that his wife had misconstrued a conversation they had, police forced him to submit to a mental health evaluation at Landmark Hospital. The doctor who saw him there promptly discharged him, and no charges were ever filed. In the meantime, police seized “for safe keeping” three lawfully registered guns from a locked case in Richer’s garage. When Richer tried to retrieve the guns on a number of occasions, police refused to return them. That prompted the lawsuit challenging the department’s weapon seizure policy and bringing to light the police file note about Richer. During that case, police officials acknowledged there was no factual basis for the note, prompting the lawsuit that has now been resolved.

The lawsuit was filed by ACLU of RI cooperating attorneys Thomas W. Lyons and Rhiannon Huffman. ACLU attorney Lyons said today: “We are pleased to be able to clear Jason’s name by removing the false and potentially dangerous note from the police records.” Plaintiff Richer agreed but added a note of caution: “I’m happy to have prevailed in clearing this misinformation from my file and forcing the department to acknowledge its wrongdoing against me. At the same time, the public should be aware that the same thing could happen to them. I hope that the department will use my case to revise its practices and establish some oversight to prevent something like this from happening again.”

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