Militarization of Police

Appeals Court Rules in Rack 'n' Roll Pool Hall Case

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A few weeks ago, a three-judge panel from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit tossed out (pdf) most of the civil rights suit filed by David Ruttenberg, owner of the Rack 'n' Roll Pool hall in Manassas Park, Virginia.  Fortunately, the court did leave one Fourth Amendment claim that could save Ruttenberg's case.

For a couple of years now, I've been reporting on how officials in the tiny town of Manassas Park have been harassing Ruttenberg and attempting to take away his business.  The police there have been investigating Rutenberg for several years, for what they've recently said are drug crimes.  As of yet, they've found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing by Ruttenberg.  They've arrested him twice on charges unrelated to drugs—once for filing a false police report and once for bouncing a check—and in both cases the charges were eventually dropped.

The police in Manassas Park have hired informants to set up drug deals in Ruttenberg's bar (which they later cited as evidence that Ruttenberg's bar was a filled with drug activity).  They've pulled over Ruttenberg's former girlfriends, and threatened them with charges unless they provided information against him.  They've even co-opted security Ruttenberg had hired specifically for the purpose of keeping drugs out of his bar, and had them set up drug transactions in the bar. 

The story took a particularly weird twist last year when local politics blogger Greg Letiecq and I revealed that one of the charges levied against Ruttenberg by the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control—that he was allowing lewd activity to go on at the bar—was due to photos dozens of photos of women dancing in various stages of undress that were taken by then-Manassas Park Vice Mayor Kevin Brendel.  At the time, Brendel was working at Ruttenberg's bar as a part-time D.J.  Current and former Rack 'n' Roll staff say Brendel encouraged the women to strip and put on lewd contests when Ruttenberg wasn't around, despite repeated warnings from Ruttenberg.

I've personally witnessed police harassment of Ruttenberg's customers.  And I've gone through hours of surveillance video with him showing countless attempts to set him up.

Ruttenberg has shown remarkable resolve through all of this.  He records every phone conversation.  He keeps meticulous surveillance video that covers every corner of his property.  He collects statements and affidavits from staff, friends, and witnesses.  He has hired private investigators.  He has a formidable collection of evidence of public corruption and police misconduct (I've spent hours with him at the bar going through it all).  Unfortunately, local prosecutor Paul Ebert (the same prosecutor in the Ryan Frederick case) seems uninterested.  As does the FBI.  And the Virginia State Police.

The appeals court ruling was pretty dismissive of Ruttenberg's suit (the ruling also misstates several facts about the case).  But the one claim they left intact may turn out to be enough.  The appeals court panel reversed the district court's dismissal of Ruttenberg's Fourth Amendment claim that the tactics the police used in a 2004 raid on Rack 'n' Roll were excessive.  And they most certainly were. 

The police initially sought a criminal search warrant for the raid.  They couldn't find a judge to grant them one.  So instead, they claimed they were conducting a routine alcohol inspection, and raided the place anyway.  This "regulatory inspection" was clearly intended to intimidate Ruttenberg and his customers, and to find evidence of criminality—the police brought more than 70 officers from Manassas Park and surrounding jurisdictions, some in uniform, some in plain clothes, and still others in ski-mask hats and camouflage pumping shot guns as the stormed the place (on Ladies' Night).

If this was a routine alcohol inspection, you have to wonder what an actual drug raid might have looked like.  Here's Ruttenberg's surveillance video of the raid.  Er, "inspection":

The only people arrested in the raid were either undercover cops or people Ruttenberg later learned were working for the police as confidential informants.

The bad news is that while the ruling remands the remaining claim back to the district court for further proceedings, the panel then expresses a good deal of skepticism about whether the remaining claim should ultimately survive.  In fact, the ruling nearly instructs the district court on how to dismiss it.

The good news is that Ruttenberg has several state claims that remain intact, which he can now attach to his federal case.  That gets him into discovery, where he can demand to see everything the town of Manassas Park has accumulated in its long investigation of him.

Ruttenberg's other problem right now is that he has run out of money to pursue the case any further.  He had kept his bar open at a loss for a couple of years in hopes of selling it.  He was finally able to sell it at a steep loss last year, but that and the legal fees he has accumulated have wrecked him.  He's currently looking for legal representation to help him continue the case.