The Ninth Circuit Appeals Court has affirmed a lower court’s stripping of a federal officer’s qualified immunity in a… moon rock sting case. This is a thing. Relatives and friends of NASA personnel have received what they believe are gifts from them — items containing moon rock pieces, or heat shield fragments, or whatever. The problem here is the government believes it owns anything related to its exploration missions.
It’s not always illegal to be in possession of these items, but as Lowering the Bar’s Kevin Underhill explains, it’s almost always going to be treated as illegal by the federal government.
[I]f you have or even claim to have any lunar material, or some other piece of Apollo memorabilia, the government is quite likely to treat you as a criminal if it finds out—even if, as in this case, it had no proof at all that the suspect got it illegally (or even that it was what she claimed).
The “she” here is Joann Davis, whose late husband worked on the Apollo program. He was given two Apollo souvenirs by Neil Armstrong — paperweights containing pieces of a moon rock and a heat shield, respectively. Davis was looking to sell the items to a collector to defray her son’s medical expenses. She asked NASA for assistance, which turned out to be a mistake. NASA sent the feds after her.
Davis may have told the government what she was up to, but the government didn’t return the favor. Instead, it decided to engage in sting operation, because that’s obviously the best way to deal with a 74-year-old woman trying to pay medical expenses — and who had made the government fully aware of her NASA-related items and her planned sale of them.
“Jeff,” the government’s undercover man posing as an interested buyer, met with Davis at a Denny’s. Outside were six armed federal agents. The only person with Davis was her 70-year-old friend, Paul Cilley. From the opinion [PDF]:
Once Davis, Cilley, and “Jeff” were seated in a booth inside the restaurant and exchanged pleasantries, Davis placed the paperweights on the table. “Jeff” said he thought the heat shield was worth about $2,000. Shortly thereafter, Conley announced himself as a “special agent,” and another officer’s hand reached over Davis, grabbed her hand, and took the moon rock paperweight. Simultaneously, a different officer grabbed Cilley by the back of the neck and restrained him by holding his arm behind his back in a bent-over position. Then, an officer grabbed Davis by the arm, pulling her from the booth. At this time, Davis claims that she felt like she was beginning to lose control of her bladder. One of the officers took her purse. Both Cilley and Davis were compliant. Four officers escorted them to the restaurant parking lot for questioning after patting them down to ensure that neither was armed.
If this itself seems excessive, well… hold the government’s beer.
Davis claims that she told officers twice during the escort that she needed to use the restroom, but that they did not answer and continued walking her toward an SUV where Conley was waiting. Davis subsequently urinated in her clothing. Although their accounts differ in some respects, Conley and Davis agree that he knew she was wearing urine-soaked pants as he interrogated her in the restaurant parking lot. Davis claims that she was not allowed an opportunity to clean herself or change her clothing, despite communicating to Conley several times that she was “very uncomfortable.”
Conley is Norman Conley, the federal agent whose immunity remains stripped. For whatever reason, Conley appeared to believe it wasn’t enough to have both the disputed property in hand and a fully-compliant suspect who had already informed NASA about her plans to sell them.
Conley then proceeded to question Davis for one-and-a-half to two hours, during which time Davis remained standing in the same place.
In urine-soaked pants, lest we forget.
Conley apparently felt he just wasn’t threatening enough. He brought more muscle for the urine-soaked, Denny’s parking lot interrogation of a 74-year-old woman.
[W]hile Conley questioned her, another officer wearing a flack jacket stood behind her and pushed her each time she shifted her weight or stepped backwards. During the questioning, Conley kept Davis’s purse and car keys and told her repeatedly that “they still really want to take you in,” and that she needed to give him more information before he could release her. She was kept from going to her car. At least ninety minutes had passed when Conley told Davis she was free to leave.
Here’s the depressing coda:
After the sting operation was complete and NASA lunar experts were able to confirm the moon rock’s authenticity, Conley opened a full investigation. The investigation was closed when the U.S. Attorney in Orlando, Florida, formally declined to prosecute Davis. Davis’s son died seven months after the incident.
As the appeals court points out, Conley’s own admissions cancel out his qualified immunity defense.
At the time of the detention, Conley was aware of several facts that color the reasonableness of his actions. First, Conley knew that Davis was a slight, elderly woman, who was then nearly seventy-five years old and less than five feet tall. Second, he knew that Davis lost control of her bladder during the search and was wearing visibly wet pants. Third, he knew that Davis and Cilley were unarmed and that the search warrant had been fully executed by the time Davis was escorted to the parking lot. Fourth, Conley knew that Davis had not concealed possession of the paperweights, but rather had reached out to NASA for help in selling the paperweights. Finally, because all but the first of the phone calls between Davis and “Jeff” were recorded, Conley knew the exact content of most of those conversations, including that Davis was experiencing financial distress as a result of having to raise grandchildren after her daughter died, her son was severely ill and required expensive medical care, and Davis needed a transplant. Those conversations also revealed Davis’s desire to sell the paperweights in a legal manner and her belief that she possessed them legally because they were a gift to her late husband.
If Conley didn’t want to be held accountable for civil liberties violations, the court says he probably shouldn’t have violated them so thoroughly.
Because the moon rock paperweight had been seized and both Davis and Cilley had already been searched for other weapons and contraband, Conley had no law enforcement interest in detaining Davis for two hours while she stood wearing urine-soaked pants in a restaurant’s parking lot during the lunch rush. This is precisely the type of “unusual case” involving “special circumstances” that leads us to conclude that a detention is unreasonable. Conley’s detention of Davis, an elderly woman, was unreasonably prolonged and unnecessarily degrading.
There are multiple ways this could have been handled and Conley chose the path most likely to result in a civil rights lawsuit. Maybe he thought Davis would never go so far as to sue him. Maybe this is just how Agent Conley handles everything: with as much force and intimidation as possible, even if nothing about the situation warrants it. Whatever the case, Conley will now have to face Davis’ allegations in court, with no shield in front of him. Hopefully, he’ll find the experience to be nearly as uncomfortable as what he put Joann Davis through.