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Meiners v. Moriarity

decided: October 6, 1977.


Appeals from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, Southern Division. Nos. S-Civ-73-139, A-Civ-75-43 - Robert D. Morgan, Judge.

Fairchild, Chief Judge, Swygert and Cummings, Circuit Judges.

Author: Swygert

SWYGERT, Circuit Judge.

Plaintiff-appellant John Meiners appeals from a jury verdict against him on his suit for money damages against the defendants for alleged deprivations of his constitutional rights. Plaintiff also appeals from a verdict in favor of the defendants awarding monetary damages on their counterclaims for defamation. Defendants cross-appeal from the district court's ruling that they were "public officials" for purposes of their defamation claims and therefore were not entitled to collect punitive damages.

In the fall of 1972 agents from the Office for Drug Abuse Law Enforcement of the United States Department of Justice ("DALE") were investigating a narcotics smuggling and distribution ring. Pursuant to the investigation undercover agents arranged to purchase cocaine from Edward Staffire and Jeffrey Bulmer at a farmhouse in which they lived near Edwardsville, Illinois. While this transaction was occurring in one part of the house, one of the agents, defendant Dennis W. Harker, sought to enter the house by the back door and was admitted by an unidentified man who did not take part in the sale of the cocaine.

Following this transaction the investigation continued and on the evening of April 19, 1973 Staffire was arrested. Deciding to cooperate with the agents, Staffire gave them the key to a car in which he said nine ounces of cocaine were hidden. He also gave them keys to the farmhouse and permission to search it although he stated that they would probably not find any narcotics. A substantial amount of cocaine was seized from the car, and in the early morning of April 20, it was decided that a number of DALE agents would go to the farmhouse.

Testimony concerning events at the farmhouse differed between plaintiff and defendants. Defendants' version was that two undercover agents approached the house and knocked on the door. They identified themselves as police officers and were admitted by plaintiff Meiners. Once they were inside, other agents converged on and entered the house. Defendant Harker's first impression upon seeing Meiners that night was that he was the man present at the farmhouse in the fall of 1972; he later stated that he was not sure about the identification. Harker then engaged Meiners in conversation and, when he began to make "potentially incriminating statements," read him his Miranda rights. Thereafter, Meiners told the agents that Staffire and Bulmer lived in the farmhouse, that he had once seen them bagging a white powdery substance, that he knew Staffire had been arrested on a drug charge in Texas prior to his present arrest, and that Meiners paid the rent and telephone bills. After consultation among themselves and further questioning of Meiners, the agents arrested Meiners. They believed that there was enough evidence to charge him with aiding and abetting and misprision of a felony.

Meiners then gave his permission for the agents to search the entire house, but no other persons nor any narcotics were discovered. When the agents left with Meiners, they secured and locked the house. At no time during the search was DALE agent Dennis Moriarity at the farmhouse. He became lost en route and, although in radio contact with the agents on the scene, never came closer than an Edwardsville gas station.

Meiners was taken to the DALE office in St. Louis, Missouri, and placed in the federal holdover section of the city jail. Later that morning Frederick Dana, the acting attorney in charge of the DALE office in St. Louis, spoke by telephone with agents who had participated in the search and arrest. After hearing the agents' story of the events of the night before, Dana decided not to charge Meiners at that time. The agents understood that Dana would have Meiners released. Three days later, on April 23, agent Harker learned that Meiners was still in jail. When asked, Dana stated that he had forgotten about him and sent Harker to release Meiners.

According to Meiners, when he returned to the farmhouse he found that it had been burglarized and vandalized while he was in jail. He filed a claim on his homeowner's insurance policy, telling the insurance company he had no idea who the burglars were. Around the end of May 1973, the insurance company reimbursed Meiners for all property he had listed as stolen.

Plaintiff's version of the April 20 incident was different. He stated that after he had opened the door a few inches in response to a knock, some of the defendants pushed their way in without identifying themselves. He was then forced up against a wall and was asked where the "stuff" was while a gun was pressed to his head. Plaintiff stated that he was handcuffed and questioned while items of his personal property were moved around by agents - items which later proved missing when he returned home from jail. He also complained that the agents drank beer from his refrigerator, damaged his house, fired shots in the yard, and otherwise failed to act in a professional manner, all of which caused him to be frightened. Portions of these allegations were corroborated by David Kurz, a special agent of the Internal Revenue Service.*fn1 Plaintiff also contended that it was the responsibility of some or all of the defendants, as arresting agents, to see to his release from jail once the decision not to charge him had been made.

Subsequently certain DALE agents became the subjects of considerable publicity regarding their allegedly unlawful conduct during two "drug raids" in Collinsville, Illinois, on April 23, 1973.*fn2 Meiners testified before a grand jury investigating possible charges against DALE agents. By early July no indictments had been returned, although both state and federal grand juries had investigated the DALE agents' activities. On July 11, 1973 Meiners filed a complaint against the United States, agents Moriarity, Bloemker, Harker, Dwyer, Green, Olive, and Stolte, and other unknown agents, seeking $2,800,000 in damages.*fn3 The complaint alleged that the events testified to by Meiners occurred and that his constitutional rights had been violated. At a press conference that day, Meiners' attorney announced that the lawsuit had been filed because no federal action had been taken against the agents and because they were still on the job. Copies of the complaint were distributed to the press, and both Meiners and his attorney expounded upon the allegations of the complaint.

During the interview Meiners said that a significant amount of his personal property had been taken by federal agents. He also stated that the agents "wrecked" his home and had questioned him while holding a gun to his head. Meiners said that defendant Moriarity was present at the farmhouse, claiming he had discovered his identity by reading the name on his DALE badge.*fn4

Subsequent to the filing of the lawsuit and the public statements by Meiners and his attorney, defendants Moriarity, Dwyer, Harker, Hillebrand, and Bloemker were suspended from DALE for thirty days without pay. The suspensions lasted until April 1974 when the agents were reinstated with backpay.*fn5

Later that month Meiners again testified before a special grand jury convened to investigate charges against various DALE agents and once again accused the defendants of stealing his property. At the civil trial he admitted that he knew within a few days after returning home ...

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