By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily
A legal standard that protects government officials from being sued in most cases can be used in the case of law enforcement officers accused of wrongfully detaining a Missouri family in 2017, a federal judge has ruled.
However, the judge found that the officers can only be protected from a lawsuit filed by the husband who was detailed and that his wife can proceed with her lawsuit against them.
Brett and Genalyn Hemry are suing Park County Sheriff’s Department officers Robert Cooke and Brett Tillery, along with National Park Service rangers, alleging violations of their rights against improper search and seizure, use of excessive force and false imprisonment in the traffic stop near Yellowstone National Park that resulted from a search for a man suspected in a triple murder.
The law enforcement officers claimed they were protected from lawsuits by “qualified immunity.” According to Cornell University, qualified immunity protects a government official from lawsuits alleging that the official violated a plaintiff’s rights, only allowing suits where officials violated a “clearly established” statutory or constitutional right.
According to court documents, National Park Service rangers stopped the Hemrys after they left the park service’s east gate. Rangers had identified Brett Hemry as a possible suspect in a triple murder because, like the suspect, he had white hair and drove a white car.
About one-half hour after the stop, Park County Sheriff’s deputies arrived and forced Brett Hemry and his wife at gunpoint to get into separate law enforcement vehicles. While the Hemrys were being detained, another officer continued to point a weapon at the family’s car, where the family’s child, identified only as F.M.H., remained.
The lawsuit said after about an hour of detention in the deputy’s vehicle, Brett Hemry was allowed to display his identification and was told why he was stopped. At that point, the three were told they were free to go, the lawsuit said.
Because the officers had a reason for detaining Hemry, since he matched the suspect’s physical description, U.S. District Judge Judge Alan Johnson ruled that the officers are protected from a lawsuit over allegations of Hemry’s wrongful arrest under terms of qualified immunity.
However, Johnson ruled the officers did not have cause to detain Genalyn Hemry because the officers should have known she was not the suspect.
“This Court concludes that probable cause supported Mr. Hemry’s arrest, but not Mrs. Hemry’s,” Johnson wrote in his decision.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages to compensate the Hemrys for “their loss of freedom and for their emotional distress, pain and suffering, and loss of enjoyment of life” and punitive damages for the “intentional, reckless, and outrageous actions” of the law enforcement officers.