Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr. admits officers made some mistakes in a 2014 marijuana raid examined in federal court this month, with a jury in a civil case concluding that police stomped on a New Orleans man, knocking out his teeth, and illegally searched his bare body.
Though the excessive force claims brought by Brett Percle, 24, may have attracted much of the attention in the four-day trial, it was the strip search of Percle and others in a house that could provoke change within the Baton Rouge Police Department, Dabadie said.
For the chief, the trial illuminated a technical flaw in a warrant by a Baton Rouge officer, saying he didn’t use language broad enough to allow searches of suspects in the house. Dabadie said he is looking to implement fixes. But some experts questioned whether one of his potential remedies would simply give officers more cover to carry out what might be unconstitutional strip searches of suspects at scenes.
The seven-person jury March 10 unanimously decided that Cpl. Robert Moruzzi used excessive force and committed an assault and battery on Percle, as well as concluding that a different officer, Detective Jason Acree, authorized an unlawful strip search without the required warrant. The jury found that the city showed “deliberate indifference” toward an apparent custom by officers of performing the warrantless strip searches, according to the verdict form in the case.
“I’ve admitted that the warrant wasn’t written correctly,” Dabadie said, referring to the authorization for a search for marijuana sales at 1486 Lila Ave. on June 11, 2014.
Percle, who happened to be in the house at the time but wasn’t named in the warrant, said officers in tactical gear burst into the house and ordered him and his friends face-down on the floor before Moruzzi stomped on the back of his neck area, causing his teeth to slam into the tile floor.
One tooth was dislodged immediately and a few other teeth were damaged, Percle said. Later, Percle alleged, he and the others were told to undress in the kitchen one by one so their bodies, including genitals, could be examined.
A few ounces of marijuana and about $1,600 in cash were seized in the raid. Though two men were arrested, they went into diversion programs and no one ended up being charged in the incident.
Percle ultimately wasn’t arrested or accused of any crimes. He was awarded $25,000 by the jury.
Since the trial ended, department officials have been re-training narcotics officers and reviewing the agency’s policies and practices regarding warrants and strip searches.
“As a matter of fact, the (department) legal aide has been told to stop everything else he’s doing and focus on this only,” Dabadie said.
While the department is reviewing all of its policies, Dabadie said one solution could be found in what he framed as a current practice. He said Acree should have included a clause in his warrant on the Lila Avenue house that he wanted to search any and all people inside. That change would have justified the body search on Percle, who was sitting within reach of marijuana at the time of the raid, the chief said.
“We write those warrants all of the time,” Dabadie said. “Judges sign them all of the time. The probable cause is there. It’s a known drug house. We’ve bought dope out of it. Who frequents the drug houses? People who have dope or want dope or are in the process of using the dope.”
Dabadie added: “In our world as law enforcement officers who go to these drug houses all of the time, everybody in the house has access to the dope and has access to being able to hide it.”
During the trial, Acree, a narcotics detective, testified that it’s not uncommon for him to strip search detainees at the location where they are being questioned. Acree didn’t question the practice, noting that the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison sometimes performs body or cavity searches on inmates and suggesting a search beforehand, in a room of a house for example, would offer more privacy.
Yet the question of whether officers can write generalized, sweeping warrants to strip search unnamed people on a frequent basis is up for debate.
East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said strip searches should be rare, though pat-down searches to locate weapons are generally allowed in order to ensure officer safety.
“As a DA, I would surely rather something (in a warrant) more specific about a strip search, unless officers develop information as they’re walking in that would require that. But again, that would be a rare circumstance,” he said.
Other authorities, like Charles J. Key, a policing expert who served nearly three decades with the Baltimore Police Department and oversaw narcotics operations, said he was unfamiliar with the idea of writing a drug warrant on a house that justified ordering random people who might be inside to take off their clothing for inspection.
“I honestly don’t know how they would be able to do that,” he said. “Say like there’s a party at the drug person’s house, and they have a number of people there that have nothing to do with distributing drugs. How do you justify searching everyone in the house?”
The situation would be different, Key said, if an officer could establish in a warrant that “John Smith” and “Jane Smith,” for example, were known to hide drugs on their bodies and ought to be strip searched. But what’s more common, he said, is that officers can conduct pat-down searches on scene.
Later, if justified, jail personnel might conduct strip searches of inmates, he said.
W. Lloyd Grafton, a retired federal agent and expert on policing policy and procedures based in Ruston, pointed out that strip searches normally would be done at a department office or other secure facility, not in a room of a house, like in Percle’s case. He also disagreed with writing warrants allowing strip searches of unidentified people.
“It shows respect for citizens. No one wants to be embarrassed or humiliated in a strip search. I can think of no law enforcement reason why it would be necessary at a scene. I know of no weapon that’s that minute that you couldn’t feel it through clothing,” he said.
Acree, in his testimony, said it’s sometimes possible for small weapons to go undetected under a person’s garments.
The Baton Rouge Police Department does not allow individual officers to speak to the media.
The department’s current policy, which also says strip searches ought to be “very rare” when they’re conducted prior to arrest, is being reviewed in light of any relevant U.S. Supreme Court or appellate court cases, Dabadie said.
Though Percle testified his genitals were inspected, Dabadie clarified that Percle underwent a strip search, not a body cavity search, according to police parlance. The latter is an invasive probe involving reaching inside a person’s orifices and must be done by a medical professional, Dabadie said.
He also noted that officers’ actions are legitimated by the judicial system.
“We wrote the warrant. We sent the warrant to the judge. The judge read the warrant. The judge signed the warrant and we executed the warrant. So there’s a lot of checks and balances along the way,” he said.
19th Judicial District Court Commissioner Nicole Robinson, who signed Acree’s warrant, did not respond to a request for comment.
East Baton Rouge Parish Clerk of Court’s Office spokesman Fred Sliman identified the signature on Acree’s warrant as Robinson’s. Because the incident never became a full-fledged case, it may have never been entered into the court system in such a way that the commissioner’s name could be confirmed on the docket, Sliman said.
East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden said he was reviewing the case but was not prepared to make any comments about the trial.
Percle testified that Moruzzi must have essentially “curb stomped” him during the raid, saying he could feel a foot on the back of his head, neck and shoulder area before his face slammed into a tile floor. Moruzzi, two other officers and the Police Department’s lawyers said during the trial that Percle must have accidentally knocked his own teeth out as he dropped to the floor during the raid.
Percle was hollering hysterically and was suffering from mental health issues at the time of the raid, defendants argued. Percle denied the claims about his screaming but acknowledged having depression and staying in a hospital overnight because he wanted to talk to a mental health professional in the days before the raid.
Dabadie said regardless of the disputes over what really happened during the raid, he respects the decision of the jury.
One juror, Hubert Humphreys, 60, conceded it took a long time for the group to agree on the facts of the case.
“We were very polarized. Usually three or four of us went one way, opposite the others,” he said. “Some of us didn’t believe the police. Some of us didn’t believe the plaintiff. We had to compromise. It was a difficult decision, but in the end, we felt like we all made the right decision.”
Humphreys declined to elaborate on the details of how the jurors made their choice. Another juror, who said he didn’t want to be identified, said the team wholeheartedly agreed on the verdict after spending hours reviewing all of the evidence start to finish.
That juror said the reason the award wasn’t higher was in part because it would ultimately cost taxpayers and because some jurors didn’t like the idea of a plaintiff cashing in on the system, even if the plaintiff was wronged.
U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Louisiana Walt Green said the U.S. Department of Justice monitors all federal civil rights verdicts on a nationwide basis but said he couldn’t comment on whether Percle’s case is under review.
The officers involved in the case haven’t faced any internal discipline at the Police Department associated with the raid.
Percle claimed he tried to make a formal complaint with the department just after the incident, but after not hearing back from an internal affairs detective after several calls, he filed a lawsuit instead. The department denied this, saying Percle was called back but never followed through with the required in-person complaint.
Dabadie said even if he wanted to discipline Moruzzi or Acree, which he hasn’t said he wants to do, he would be unable to do so. He said there’s a 60-day time limit on opening internal affairs investigations into officers’ actions, citing the Police Officer’s Bill of Rights.
The Police Officer’s Bill of Rights, a state law, specifies an internal investigation must be finished within 60 days “when a formal, written complaint is made.”
However, it doesn’t include language about when or if a probe must start, and no formal or written complaint in Percle’s case was ever made.
Kim Brooks, a city attorney who represents the department, said there are numerous court rulings that further delineate the 60-day timeframe in the Police Officer’s Bill of Rights. She was unable to provide information that would address Percle’s case Friday as public offices were closed that day.
“I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Dabadie said, referring to the 60-day policy.
Still, he said, he’s confident his team is addressing how narcotics warrants will be handled in the future.
“Once we have done all of the research, we will make the appropriate changes to the policy,” he said.
Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.