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A Gretna Police car is seen at the Police Headquarters in Gretna, La., Friday, Oct. 6, 2017.

Advocate staff photo by MAX BECHERER

Lawyers for the city of Gretna on Wednesday asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit brought by a former Gretna police officer who claims he was thrown off the force for criticizing an illegal arrest quota.

Daniel Swear's suit is scheduled to go to trial in December, but Gretna wants the suit thrown out, arguing that Swear can't prove his claims.

Swear’s lawyers say a jury should get a chance to decide whether he was shown the door for speaking out.

U.S. District Judge Nannette Jolivette Brown has not issued a ruling. However, she peppered lawyers for both sides with questions about Swear’s final days on the force.

Swear, 26, filed his suit against the city, Police Chief Arthur Lawson and Lt. Scott Vinson in 2015, alleging that he was forced to resign. His lawyers have produced secret recordings of supervisors discussing arrest goals and affidavits from three former officers alleging there were quotas.

Nevertheless, Swear must do more than show the existence of a quota to win in federal court. He also has to show that his rights were violated by being forced to resign because of his complaints about quotas. His case hinges in large part on whether his bosses violated his First Amendment right to free speech.

Gretna’s lawyers took two tacks in their arguments before the judge. They said there was no quota in place, and even if there was, that’s not why Swear resigned.

The evidence presented in the case so far shows only that some individual officers believed there was a quota, said Steven Mauterer, one of the city's lawyers. 

Over the course of a 144-page deposition taken in August, Swear repeatedly said that he became convinced there was a quota as soon as he became a patrol officer in 2012. However, Mauterer said Swear had failed to connect his perception to evidence.

“Is it sensational, the speculation? Of course it is,” Mauterer said. “Perceptions, speculations, beliefs are not fact.”

The three former Gretna officers who allege an arrest quota in their affidavits gave different details, Mauterer said. Swear referred to goals of either two arrests every day or one arrest every other day, and the other officers cited different numbers.

A quota “has to be so widespread as to have the force and effect of law,” Mauterer said. “We have three people and five different perceptions.”

Seth Dornier, a Baton Rouge attorney representing Swear, said one of his client’s best arguments was the long life span of the quota allegations. Former Sgt. David Heintz said there was a quota going back as far as 2007.

“There’s no way that it could have gone on for that long and people didn’t know,” Dornier said. "There’s no way that Lawson or whoever he was delegating to could not know."

Meanwhile, Gretna’s attorneys rejected the notion that Swear resigned under duress.

Swear’s lawyers say that Vinson, the lieutenant, gave a speech to Swear’s patrol team in December 2014 telling them that they needed to make up for a potential loss of $1 million in revenue by writing more tickets and making more arrests. Swear’s sergeant then told him he needed to make a specific daily arrest rate, they say.

Swear began to fall out with the department in short order. He was reprimanded for failing to meet his performance goals in January 2015. Then he was brought in for a meeting with Vinson on Feb. 2 of that year, he says.

Swear claims Vinson gave him the impression he was being demoted for spreading “poison” about the arrest quotas. Swear says he tendered his resignation that day. But in another meeting a week later, Vinson ordered him to resign or face investigation, he says.

But while Swear’s resignation may have been sudden, it was not forced, Gretna’s attorneys told the judge. Swear openly drove through the streets of Gretna with a license plate bearing the number of the state law prohibiting illegal quotas, Mauterer said.

“His First Amendment rights truly weren’t hindered. He spoke openly to everyone. … He spoke to ‘anyone that would listen.’ That’s his words,” Mauterer said.

Meanwhile, he said, Swear has only his own claim to back up his assertion that he was forced to resign in early February 2015.

“There’s no evidence that this man was even demoted,” Mauterer said. “He resigned on Feb. 2. They couldn’t discipline him if they wanted to on Feb. 9.”

Dornier said his client resigned because the second speech led him to fear he would be “blackballed” for speaking out.

“He resigned because they said, ‘I’m going to get you,’ ” Dornier said.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432