The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department has delivered a stunning blow to the Evangeline Parish Sheriff’s Office and the Ville Platte Police Department in a scathing REPORT that may leave the door open to a flood of lawsuits against and criminal prosecution of the two departments for civil rights infringements through unconstitutional incarceration, intimidation and extortion.
The report’s findings also cast a cloud of legal doubt that could potentially taint an undetermined number of past criminal convictions that resulted from such practices.
In a blockbuster report dated Dec. 19, says in something of an understatement that a “thorough investigation” the Justice Department has concluded “that there is reasonable cause to believe that both the Ville Platte, Louisiana Police Department (VPPD) and the Evangeline Parish Sheriff’s Office (EPSO) have engaged in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional conduct” that dates back “as far as anyone (at either department) can remember.”
The 17-page report went on to say, “Both VPPD and EPSO have arrested and held people in jail—without obtaining a warrant and without probable cause to believe that the detained individuals had committed a crime—in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. We have additional concerns that these unconstitutional holds have led to coerced confessions and improper criminal convictions. These findings reflect the results of an investigation into both agencies, which have engaged in nearly identical practices within overlapping jurisdictional boundaries.”
The arrests, called “investigative holds,” were used routinely by both VPPD and EPSO as a part of their criminal investigations during which threats of continued wrongful incarceration were employed to induce arrestees to provide information. Authorities also threatened their family members and potential witnesses, the report said.
“The arrests include individuals suspected (without sufficient evidence) of committing crimes, as well as their family members and potential witnesses,” it said.
Other violations cited by the report included claims that individuals improperly arrested were:
- Placed in holding cells without beds, toilets, or showers;
- Denied communication with family members and loved ones;
- Commonly detained for 72 hours or more without being provided an opportunity to contest their arrest and detention;
- Held and questioned until they either provide information or the law enforcement agency determines that they do not have information related to a crime.
The report further said there were “concerns that some people may have confessed to crimes or provided information sought by EPSO and VPPD detectives, apparently to end this secret and indefinite confinement.
It said that the practice is “routine at EPSO and VPPD” and that both agencies acknowledged that they used holds to investigate criminal activity for as long as anyone at the agency can remember. The number of holds used in recent years is “staggering.”
“Between 2012 and 2014, for example,” it said, “EPSO initiated over 200 arrests where the only documented reason for arrest was an investigative hold. In that same period, VPPD used the practice more than 700 times. The number of holds by EPSO and VPPD is likely even higher; both agencies use such rudimentary arrest documentation systems that the total number of arrests for investigative hold purposes is likely underreported.”
Following the onset of its investigation in April 2015, “leadership of VPPD, EPSO and the City of Ville Platte admitted that the holds are unconstitutional” and have taken steps to begin eliminating their use, the report says, adding that still more work “remains to be done.” The agencies’ policies, procedures, training, and data collection and accountability systems “must ensure that investigative holds are eliminated permanently,” it said, adding that local officials “must work to repair community trust, because many people may still be justifiably reluctant to provide information to law enforcement for fear that doing so could subject them to an unconstitutional detention.”
The report is the culmination of an investigation in which a cross-section of community residents, some of whom were subjected to the investigative holds.
“To gain additional information, we spoke with former FBI investigators and officials at the Louisiana State Office of the Inspector General who have interacted with Ville Platte and Evangeline Parish residents during their own investigations,” the report said. “Finally, we reviewed thousands of pages of documents, including City Jail booking logs, Parish Jail booking cards, and other records; probable cause affidavits; policy and procedure manuals; and more. This review highlighted that both EPSO and VPPD lack a consistent and detailed process for recording and tracking information about arrests, detentions, and interrogations.”
The Justice Department concluded that it found “reasonable cause to believe that both EPSO and VPPD engage in a pattern or practice of violating the Fourth Amendment by arresting and detaining individuals without probable cause. Moreover, we have serious concerns that these agencies use holds to obtain coerced statements that taint the criminal convictions of the unlawfully detained individuals.
“This pattern or practice is widespread and longstanding throughout both agencies. Between January 2012 and December 2014, EPSO—an agency with four detectives that polices a jurisdiction populated by only 33,000 residents—listed “investigative hold” as the sole basis for over 200 arrests. During the same time period, VPPD arrested individuals on investigative holds more than 700 times while policing a jurisdiction of only 7,300 residents (10 percent of the city’s entire population). At least 30 of VPPD’s investigative hold arrests were of juveniles. The investigative hold practice violates the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, including arrests. The United States is authorized to address a pattern or practice of Fourth Amendment violations under 42 U.S.C. § 14141, which grants the Department of Justice authority to bring suit for equitable and declaratory relief when a “governmental authority . . . engage[s] in a pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers . . . that deprives persons of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.” 42 U.S.C. § 14141. A pattern or practice exists where violations are repeated rather than isolated.”
Detectives from both agencies violated individuals’ Fourth Amendment when, “lacking probable cause, they instructed officers to ‘pick up’ an individual and ‘bring him in’ for questioning rather than making an ‘arrest,’” the report’s narrative said. “Indeed, there can be little doubt that the Fourth Amendment’s probable cause requirement applies where suspects are involuntarily taken to the police station. This practice subjects individuals to arrest and detention without cause and erodes the community trust that is critical to effective law enforcement in Evangeline Parish and Ville Platte.”
The investigative holds are made “without a warrant, without any showing that the testimony is essential and that obtaining it via subpoena is impracticable, and without any attempt to obtain prior judicial approval,” the report says.
“EPSO and VPPD officers have used unlawful investigative holds as a regular part of criminal investigations for more than two decades. Most holds operate as follows:
- When a detective at either agency wants to question someone in connection with an ongoing criminal investigation, the detective instructs a patrol officer to find that individual in the community and bring him or her in for questioning.
- The patrol officer commands the individual to ride in a patrol vehicle to either the City or Parish jail, where pursuant to the jail’s standard procedures, jail personnel strip-search the individual and place him or her in a holding cell (sometimes referred to as “the bullpen” at the Parish Jail) until a detective is available to conduct questioning.
- At the City Jail, there are two holding cells; both are equipped with a hard metal bench, and nothing else. Neither holding cell at the City Jail has a mattress, running water, shower, or toilet in the cell.
- The Parish Jail is similar; the “bullpen” is equipped with only a long metal bench, and the walls are made of metal grating. EPSO detectives and deputies refer to the process of detaining a person in the “bullpen” for questioning as “putting them on ice.”
- Investigative holds initiated by VPPD often last for 72 hours—and sometimes significantly longer—forcing detainees to spend multiple nights sleeping on a concrete floor or metal bench. Indeed, VPPD’s booking logs indicate that, from 2012-2014, several dozen investigative holds extended for at least a full week. During this time, VPPD exerts control over the detainees’ liberty: The detained person is not permitted to make phone calls to let family or employers know where they are, and have access to bathrooms and showers only when taken into the jail’s general population area.
- Similarly, EPSO’s investigative holds often last for three full days. During that time, detainees are forced to sleep on the Parish Jail’s concrete floor. One EPSO deputy reported that he saw someone held without a warrant or a probable cause determination for more than six days.
- As with VPPD, EPSO also controls the detainee’s liberty. EPSO does not permit detainees who are “on hold” to make phone calls to let family or employers know their whereabouts. Indeed, we were told that certain detectives have threatened EPSO jail officers (referred to as “jailers” in the Parish Jail) with retaliation if the officers allowed detainees to make phone calls. One EPSO jail officer described an incident in which an EPSO detective reprimanded him after the jail officer provided toothpaste and other personal supplies to a person locked in the holding cell.
These investigative holds are not even ostensibly supported by probable cause. Both EPSO and VPPD detectives acknowledged that they use investigative holds where they lack sufficient evidence to make an arrest, but instead have a “hunch” or “feeling” that a person may be involved in criminal activity. One VPPD officer noted that they use investigative holds specifically where the officer needs more time to develop evidence to support a lawful arrest. Similarly, an EPSO detective described using investigative holds when he had “a pretty good feeling” or a “gut instinct” that a certain individual was connected to a crime.
The report indicated that officers at both agencies admitted that they use the time that a person is “on hold” to develop their case, either by gathering evidence or by convincing the detainee to confess. One EPSO detective told investigators that he experimented with investigative holds by testing whether a crime wave subsides while a particular person is in jail. He explained that if the crimes continue during the hold, the presumably innocent person is released but if the crimes cease during the detention, the detective investigates the person further.
VPPD officers explained that holds assist their investigations by inducing people to talk to investigators and by allowing detectives to gather evidence while the individual they suspect is in custody and cannot communicate with people on the outside. Moreover, both agencies confirmed that they used holds to detain individuals whom they did not suspect of involvement in criminal activity, but who instead had the misfortune of being related to suspects, may have witnessed crimes, or otherwise might have knowledge of criminal activity.
In an ominous warning on the perils of investigative holds, the report said, “The willingness of officers in both agencies to arrest and detain individuals who are merely possible witnesses in criminal investigations means that literally anyone in Evangeline Parish or Ville Platte could be arrested and placed ‘on hold’ at any time.”
That, folks, would be the very definition of a true police state.
One might legitimately ask: Where were the local district attorneys and judges while this practice was being carried out over at least two decades?