Parish: St. Tammany
Police Department: St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office
The American Civil Liberties Union and Linklaters LLP are representing Bruce Washington and Gregory Lane in a lawsuit against Officers Alexander Thomas, Sean Wood, Jackson Bridel, and John Doe from the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office (STPSO), along with Randy Smith in his official capacity as STPSO Sheriff.
In 2010, the STPSO’s then-Sheriff, Sheriff Rodney “Jack” Strain, ranted to a local news reporter on camera, “If you’re gonna walk the streets of St. Tammany Parish with dreadlocks and chee wee hairstyles, then you can expect to be getting a visit from a sheriff’s deputy…you can guarantee that things that you got away within the city will not be tolerated in this parish.” In 2014, several high-ranking STPSO detectives were exposed for exchanging racist and offensive emails amongst each other, including referring to Black individuals as “monkey[s]” and “animals.” STPSO’s well-documented and pervasive culture of racism and prejudice against Black individuals has resulted in shockingly disparate treatment of Black individuals such that in Louisiana, Black individuals are 3.2 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white individuals, despite evidence that black people and white people use marijuana at similar rates. State-wide, Black people constitute 33% of state residents, but 67% of people in prison and 52% in jail.
On the night of March 13, 2021, Mr. Washington was pumping gas at a gas station in Bogalusa, LA. He was accompanied by his cousin, Mr. Lane. During this time, Mr. Washington and Mr. Lane noticed that two officers from STPSO, Alexander Thomas and Sean Wood, were observing them from their parked patrol car. When Mr. Washington and Mr. Lane left the gas station in Mr. Washington’s car, the officers followed them. As Mr. Washington drove for about a mile, a van with no taillights sped past them. Ignoring this van, the officers instead pulled Mr. Lane and Mr. Washington over. Officer Jackson Bridel arrived on the scene shortly after.
One officer told Mr. Washington that he was pulled over for failing to use a turn signal, which Mr. Washington denied. A second officer approached the passenger side of the vehicle and interrogated Mr. Lane, asking him about his destination and where he was coming from. After answering, Mr. Lane asked the officer if he could call his wife, who would then call their lawyer, noting that he did not think he was in trouble but liked to call his wife when being stopped by police.
Upon hearing this, the officer ordered Mr. Lane out of the car, requested his ID, and asked him to stand near the police car. Mr. Lane asked why he had to get out of the car if he was not the one driving, and the officer responded by laughing and stating that Mr. Lane was “acting a little weird” by asking to call his lawyer. Meanwhile, the other officer threatened Mr. Washington, saying that he was going to make the traffic stop “go a different way than it has to be,” and instructed Mr. Washington to step out of the vehicle.
The officers conducted pat-down searches on both Mr. Washington and Mr. Lane under coercion, prevented Mr. Lane from calling his wife, peered inside of Mr. Washington’s vehicle with their flashlights, and verbally accosted both Mr. Lane and Mr. Washington. Eventually, the officers wrote Mr. Washington a ticket for making an improper turn and failing to use a turn signal. When Mr. Washington attended his court date, the prosecutor decided not to prosecute the ticket and dropped the citation.
After the incident, Mr. Washington and Mr. Lane attempted to file a complaint against the officers at multiple STPSO office locations. Still, they were turned away by John Doe employees of the STPSO each time, with some accusing Mr. Washington and Mr. Lane of being unreasonably upset about receiving a traffic ticket, telling them to “get out of [their] office,” and stating that they would never write up one of their deputies.
The lawsuit asserts violations of Mr. Washington’s and Mr. Lane’s rights under the Fourth Amendment, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Louisiana Constitution, and Louisiana state common and statutory laws by the officers’ unlawful and unreasonable seizures, unlawful detention of Mr. Lane, and the racial discrimination suffered by both plaintiffs. The suit also asserts claims against the STPSO for their failure to supervise and investigate the incident appropriately.
In November 2022, Justice Lab and Linklaters partially defeated a motion to dismiss brought on behalf of the defendant deputies on the issue of whether Deputy Thomas’s search of Mr. Washington was unlawful. In December 2022, the Court denied Deputy Thomas’s motion for summary judgment on this issue, concluding that Deputy Thomas was not entitled to qualified immunity on the issue of the unlawful search given significant issues of material fact surrounding (1) whether Mr. Washington had consented to Deputy Thomas’s search, (2) whether any consent could really be valid immediately following the Deputy’s threat of arrest or force, and (3) whether the Deputy had reasonable suspicion to search Mr. Washington in the first place. In particular, the Court found that Deputy Thomas was not entitled to qualified immunity because the facts could lead a jury to find that it was not “objectively reasonable for Thomas to believe that he had Washington’s consent for the frisk,” and therefore that he had violated Mr. Washington’s constitutional rights.
The defendants in this case are:
- Alexander Thomas, Deputy Police Officer of the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office
- Sean Wood, Deputy Police Officer of the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office
- Jackson Bridel, Deputy Police Officer of the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office
- John Doe, Employees of the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office
- St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office