Court: No Immunity For Federal Agent Who Made Elderly Woman Stand In Urine-Soaked Pants For Two Hours While He Questioned Her

from the tough-on-(moon-related)-crime dept

The Ninth Circuit Appeals Court has affirmed a lower court's stripping of a federal officer's qualified immunity in a… moon rock sting case. This is a thing. Relatives and friends of NASA personnel have received what they believe are gifts from them -- items containing moon rock pieces, or heat shield fragments, or whatever. The problem here is the government believes it owns anything related to its exploration missions.

It's not always illegal to be in possession of these items, but as Lowering the Bar's Kevin Underhill explains, it's almost always going to be treated as illegal by the federal government.

[I]f you have or even claim to have any lunar material, or some other piece of Apollo memorabilia, the government is quite likely to treat you as a criminal if it finds out—even if, as in this case, it had no proof at all that the suspect got it illegally (or even that it was what she claimed).

The "she" here is Joann Davis, whose late husband worked on the Apollo program. He was given two Apollo souvenirs by Neil Armstrong -- paperweights containing pieces of a moon rock and a heat shield, respectively. Davis was looking to sell the items to a collector to defray her son's medical expenses. She asked NASA for assistance, which turned out to be a mistake. NASA sent the feds after her.

Davis may have told the government what she was up to, but the government didn't return the favor. Instead, it decided to engage in sting operation, because that's obviously the best way to deal with a 74-year-old woman trying to pay medical expenses -- and who had made the government fully aware of her NASA-related items and her planned sale of them.

"Jeff," the government's undercover man posing as an interested buyer, met with Davis at a Denny's. Outside were six armed federal agents. The only person with Davis was her 70-year-old friend, Paul Cilley. From the opinion [PDF]:

Once Davis, Cilley, and “Jeff” were seated in a booth inside the restaurant and exchanged pleasantries, Davis placed the paperweights on the table. “Jeff” said he thought the heat shield was worth about $2,000. Shortly thereafter, Conley announced himself as a “special agent,” and another officer’s hand reached over Davis, grabbed her hand, and took the moon rock paperweight. Simultaneously, a different officer grabbed Cilley by the back of the neck and restrained him by holding his arm behind his back in a bent-over position. Then, an officer grabbed Davis by the arm, pulling her from the booth. At this time, Davis claims that she felt like she was beginning to lose control of her bladder. One of the officers took her purse. Both Cilley and Davis were compliant. Four officers escorted them to the restaurant parking lot for questioning after patting them down to ensure that neither was armed.

If this itself seems excessive, well… hold the government's beer.

Davis claims that she told officers twice during the escort that she needed to use the restroom, but that they did not answer and continued walking her toward an SUV where Conley was waiting. Davis subsequently urinated in her clothing. Although their accounts differ in some respects, Conley and Davis agree that he knew she was wearing urine-soaked pants as he interrogated her in the restaurant parking lot. Davis claims that she was not allowed an opportunity to clean herself or change her clothing, despite communicating to Conley several times that she was “very uncomfortable.”

Conley is Norman Conley, the federal agent whose immunity remains stripped. For whatever reason, Conley appeared to believe it wasn't enough to have both the disputed property in hand and a fully-compliant suspect who had already informed NASA about her plans to sell them.

Conley then proceeded to question Davis for one-and-a-half to two hours, during which time Davis remained standing in the same place.

In urine-soaked pants, lest we forget.

Conley apparently felt he just wasn't threatening enough. He brought more muscle for the urine-soaked, Denny's parking lot interrogation of a 74-year-old woman.

[W]hile Conley questioned her, another officer wearing a flack jacket stood behind her and pushed her each time she shifted her weight or stepped backwards. During the questioning, Conley kept Davis’s purse and car keys and told her repeatedly that “they still really want to take you in,” and that she needed to give him more information before he could release her. She was kept from going to her car. At least ninety minutes had passed when Conley told Davis she was free to leave.

Here's the depressing coda:

After the sting operation was complete and NASA lunar experts were able to confirm the moon rock’s authenticity, Conley opened a full investigation. The investigation was closed when the U.S. Attorney in Orlando, Florida, formally declined to prosecute Davis. Davis’s son died seven months after the incident.

As the appeals court points out, Conley's own admissions cancel out his qualified immunity defense.

At the time of the detention, Conley was aware of several facts that color the reasonableness of his actions. First, Conley knew that Davis was a slight, elderly woman, who was then nearly seventy-five years old and less than five feet tall. Second, he knew that Davis lost control of her bladder during the search and was wearing visibly wet pants. Third, he knew that Davis and Cilley were unarmed and that the search warrant had been fully executed by the time Davis was escorted to the parking lot. Fourth, Conley knew that Davis had not concealed possession of the paperweights, but rather had reached out to NASA for help in selling the paperweights. Finally, because all but the first of the phone calls between Davis and “Jeff” were recorded, Conley knew the exact content of most of those conversations, including that Davis was experiencing financial distress as a result of having to raise grandchildren after her daughter died, her son was severely ill and required expensive medical care, and Davis needed a transplant. Those conversations also revealed Davis’s desire to sell the paperweights in a legal manner and her belief that she possessed them legally because they were a gift to her late husband.

If Conley didn't want to be held accountable for civil liberties violations, the court says he probably shouldn't have violated them so thoroughly.

Because the moon rock paperweight had been seized and both Davis and Cilley had already been searched for other weapons and contraband, Conley had no law enforcement interest in detaining Davis for two hours while she stood wearing urine-soaked pants in a restaurant’s parking lot during the lunch rush. This is precisely the type of “unusual case” involving “special circumstances” that leads us to conclude that a detention is unreasonable. Conley’s detention of Davis, an elderly woman, was unreasonably prolonged and unnecessarily degrading.

There are multiple ways this could have been handled and Conley chose the path most likely to result in a civil rights lawsuit. Maybe he thought Davis would never go so far as to sue him. Maybe this is just how Agent Conley handles everything: with as much force and intimidation as possible, even if nothing about the situation warrants it. Whatever the case, Conley will now have to face Davis' allegations in court, with no shield in front of him. Hopefully, he'll find the experience to be nearly as uncomfortable as what he put Joann Davis through.


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  • identicon
    Cowardly Lion, 19 Apr 2017 @ 4:07am

    Not fit to live in the shadow of people like Armstrong

    Innermost circles of Hell for these assholes.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    JustMe (profile), 19 Apr 2017 @ 5:09am

    Thank goodness we have government agents like him keeping us safe for the scourge of the elderly

    As to why he made her stand in the parking lot wearing urine soaked pants, it sounds like he didn't want to...

    (•_•)
    ( •_•)>⌐■-■
    (⌐■_■)

    See her moon.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 19 Apr 2017 @ 8:06am

      Re: Thank goodness we have government agents like him keeping us safe for the scourge of the elderly

      Nope, take them off again.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Apr 2017 @ 5:18am

    My_Name_Here's heroes of law and justice, ladies and gentlemen.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Apr 2017 @ 5:18am

    Sounds like she might end up getting much more money than she was seeking, too bad the money will be too late to help with it's intended purpose.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 19 Apr 2017 @ 5:19am

      Re:

      But it won't matter since its already too late to help her sick son. This was all about trying to help him after all.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      John85851 (profile), 19 Apr 2017 @ 10:22am

      Re:

      Good for her if she gets more money, but will the officer learn anything from this? Even if she goes through with a lawsuit and even if she wins, the settlement will be paid by the police department (not the officer), which in turn will be paid by taxpayers.

      The officer needs to be fired with a "dishonorable discharge" so he can't work in any law enforcement jobs and stripped of any pension he might have. Then he might learn not to abuse his power.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Jacob Johnson, 19 Apr 2017 @ 5:22am

    burn him to the ground

    No immunity, and if the government doesn't get rid of him, then maybe we should.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    David, 19 Apr 2017 @ 5:25am

    Frankly:

    how large is the chance that such an agent would be using an appropriate amount of force in any situation?

    This rather sounds like an attack dog in the need of a handler. Or the only playbook the department works with is the good cop/bad cop routine and they were short an actor. And it does not appear like the department had anybody on cue for that role so telling one bad apple in the barrel "watch it, now" is unlikely to make an overwhelming difference.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      JustMe (profile), 19 Apr 2017 @ 5:46am

      Re: Frankly:

      So none of the seven agents were able to provide a restraining force (good cop)? I don't buy it. I think the problem is endemic in law enforcement because so many of them see everything through a lens of 'Us vs Them' instead of 'I pledged to uphold the Constitution of the United States". Which is sad.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 19 Apr 2017 @ 6:03am

        Re: Re: Frankly:

        Why send a pack of agents to deal with her? That seems like an over the top reaction to begin with, and it all went downhill from there on.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Apr 2017 @ 5:46am

    So a LEO can be punished for violating the law but only in very grave cases ?
    And even so they get little more than a slap on the wrist compared to a civilian offender.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 19 Apr 2017 @ 5:50am

      Re:

      Exactly. People have been prosecuted for assaulting an officer by bleeding on them after the cops beat them drawing blood. Others have been charged for causing the cops to break bones as they get punched in the head. No one struck a cop, yet the cops own actions causing damage draws further charges of assaulting the cops.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Apr 2017 @ 6:02am

    What about the good apples?

    So Conley gets his immunity stripped.

    What about all the other "good apples" that stood around and did nothing? No punishment for them?

    Please, cop apologists - tell me more about how it's just a few bad apples.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      David, 19 Apr 2017 @ 8:52am

      You are being unfair here.

      What about all the other "good apples" that stood around and did nothing? No punishment for them?

      It isn't fair to accuse them of standing around and doing nothing:

      [W]hile Conley questioned her, another officer wearing a flack jacket stood behind her and pushed her each time she shifted her weight or stepped backwards.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anon, 19 Apr 2017 @ 9:40am

        Re: You are being unfair here.

        That was my thought. The second agent was belligerently assaulting an elderly lady in wet pants. For two hours. For no reason - what, she was going to take a swing at Conley? Make a break for it? Why shouldn't he lose qualified immunity.

        Plus - needed to sell a priceless heirloom to pay medical bills? How quaint. Speaking as a Canadian, I've heard that happens in countries other than the civilized ones, where health care is free.

        And... don't leave us in suspense -did she get her possessions back? They were after all a gift from a legend, who presumably had the right to gift them?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 19 Apr 2017 @ 11:47am

          Re: Re: You are being unfair here.

          The law is still a little murky on that point, but the general stance of the government is that he did not have the right to gift them, as the items belonged to NASA rather than to any astronauts or other employees. To the best of my knowledge, there's never been a definitive case on the issue.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 19 Apr 2017 @ 8:31pm

            Re: Re: Re: You are being unfair here.

            If you want to get technical, they are the property of the citizens (of the us) because they paid for it.

            Maybe we should ask those who paid for them to decide whether an astronaut who risked his life for that and other missions had the right to gift them. What do you suppose their answer would be?

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Bergman (profile), 24 Apr 2017 @ 1:01am

      Re: What about the good apples?

      One thing the general public seems to have forgotten, is there are all kinda of laws on the books about racketeering, accomplices, conspiracies and so forth. None of those laws contain an exemption for law enforcement personnel.

      If you rob a liquor store at gunpoint, get away, then the next day you go over to a friend's house to watch a football game and he provides snacks, that friend is now your accomplice to the robbery. Because he gave material aid and comfort (snacks) to a wanted felon, he's now equally guilty under the law and equally subject to the 5-10 year prison sentence you are facing.

      The fact that your friend didn't know you robbed a liquor store is irrelevant. The fact your friend didn't know he was giving material comfort to a criminal? Irrelevant. He was never within ten miles of the crime scene at any time during his entire life? Irrelevant. He's an accomplice after the fact and that's that.

      Police officers routinely stand around and watch, providing silent support, as their fellow officers commit crimes. They provide armed on-call backup without asking a single question about whether the use of force is justified. If one cop shoots, they all shoot. Cops brag in the locker room just as much as anyone does in any other job, and cops overhear all kinds stories of illegal actions -- and remain silent.

      If a few handfuls of Cheetos and a glass of beer is enough to turn an innocent person into a wanted felon, then any of those things in the previous paragraph absolutely would do the same -- after all, police are not exempted from those laws.

      The general public has the bizarre notion that as long as a cop is not the primary actor in a crime, they remain a good cop -- but neither the spirit nor the letter of the law supports that view.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DannyB (profile), 19 Apr 2017 @ 6:18am

    Treat people with dignity

    The officers should be more polite. Instead of saying "me and these other officers are going to beat you to a bloody pulp" they should say "we are going to re-accommodate you. That's what we do.". All levels of government are great at using euphemisms. Just like brutal regimes we were fighting against in the previous century.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 19 Apr 2017 @ 8:33pm

      Re: Treat people with dignity

      Their attitude is that everyone is a crook so why treat them any different than a common criminal - dignity? what's that?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 19 Apr 2017 @ 6:22am

    Because people who have stolen things often call the former owner to ask the best way to sell the items.

    They often use elderly go betweens to setup robberies at Dennys.

    They sometimes say they have to pee so they can produce a secreted scud missile from their nether regions to wipe out the strike team.

    And LEO's can't seem to understand how stupid actions like this don't do much for public relations.
    You call them for help - they shoot the dog.
    They get the wrong house - they flash bang a baby.
    A CI trying to avoid jail fingers you - they tear your entire home down, find nothing, walk away.

    Perhaps its time to not let them stay up late watching cop shows where every other person is a criminal mastermind out to murder them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Jefferson (profile), 19 Apr 2017 @ 6:40am

    A few things needs to change...

    NASA should have an official registry of items that are historical in nature that would EXCLUDE those persons on the registry from having this experience. It is crazy to think that Neil Armstrong's gift would cause the recipient this kind of harm in modern times.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ninja (profile), 19 Apr 2017 @ 11:12am

      Re: A few things needs to change...

      Brave new world!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 19 Apr 2017 @ 11:44am

      Re: A few things needs to change...

      What they have done is a very disrespectful slap in Neil Armstrong's face.

      It is sad to see such ignorant people disrespect anyone, but to show such disrespect to someone who clearly deserves respect is quite troubling because at the same time they are demanding what they think is respect from everyone else.

      These types of people do not understand what the word means. How could anyone respect these bad cops/agents/whatever they call themselves.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        JMT (profile), 19 Apr 2017 @ 3:12pm

        Re: Re: A few things needs to change...

        Given the level of intelligence and maturity on display here, I'm not sure they'd even know who Neil Armstrong is...

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Haywood (profile), 19 Apr 2017 @ 6:47am

    The really sad part is;

    When I see a police car parked across the street, I feel more threaded than reassured. Supposedly my tax dollars are paying for a group of citizen policemen, and policewomen, to stand between me and the bad guys. Time has eroded that notion, and they are now about as welcome as the KGB, or the Gestapo.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 19 Apr 2017 @ 6:57am

    Learning from the MAFIAA aren't we? Next the feds will be going after printers.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Apr 2017 @ 7:07am

    Hmmm, I had better ditch those moon pies before NASA finds out.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Digitari, 19 Apr 2017 @ 7:17am

    the Best part...

    They did not return the paperweights, you just know they are sitting on someone's desk, holding down the Constitution.....

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      SteveMB (profile), 19 Apr 2017 @ 7:44am

      Re: the Best part...

      Conley needs the heat shield chunk to avoid burning his hand by accidentally touching a copy of the Constitution.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 19 Apr 2017 @ 11:49am

      Re: the Best part...

      Eww. After using their copy of the constitution as a door mat and then makeshift toilet paper, I really hope they don't keep it on their desk.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Pixelation, 19 Apr 2017 @ 7:19am

    Not a good reason

    Norman Conley needs to get some therapy. My guess is he was abused and is acting out.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ed (profile), 19 Apr 2017 @ 7:49am

    I hope Conley has to piss his pants many times in the near future. And whomever at NASA started this needs to face the consequences, as well. While I hate to see the NASA budget get dinged, they need to pay for this until it hurts them badly.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Apr 2017 @ 7:51am

    I hope Norman Conley gets what he deserves and not what is likely (nothing). That goes for the rest of the thugs. What a bunch of morons.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      David, 19 Apr 2017 @ 8:56am

      Re:

      I hope Norman Conley gets what he deserves and not what is likely (nothing).

      Standard fare is not "nothing" but a promotion and a paid vacation. The promotion in order to have a "decorated officer" to show for the civil case. And a suspension while staying on payroll.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Stan (profile), 19 Apr 2017 @ 8:19am

    His training???

    When a government agent prevents a senior citizen from changing out of urine-soaked underwear (after causing her to pee in them), you have to wonder: "Where did he get his training?"

    Then it comes to you: at United Airlines.

    (The proceeding message was brought to you by United...the "FUCK YOU" airline.)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Apr 2017 @ 9:02am

    I nominate Norman Conley for the "Piece of Shit of the Year Award"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    trish, 19 Apr 2017 @ 9:48am

    It's nice to know these nice altruistic men are out there, seeking justice for us all. I feel safe. No wait, I feel more likely to be belittled, judged, manhandled and degraded by a cop than to be helped by one.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Maroan (profile), 19 Apr 2017 @ 11:10am

    Tell me its not true...

    I read this this morning before going to work, and frankly, I had to read it twice. I´m from Denmark, and at 6 o´clock at the morning, I not quite awake before two cups of strong coffee and I was sure I had read this completely wrong.... So I read it again, and again, and again.... Now several hours later I´m still chocked about the whole story. First of all how could NASA react this way?? NASA is deeply responsible, and should be sued (Beyond hell!!)as well!! "Will the responsible guy stand out please?" It could have been so much easier to send a NASA representant to her home at the very first place! The NASA reaction is so out of proportions, one wonder really what these guys really jobs are.. Are we talking about the NASA or the NSA here? Did she dialed the wrong phone number? And now to the best part: Do american taxpayers really pay federal agencies (What are talking about here? CIA? FBI?) to put up that kind of operation?? "Hey folks we need some training around here. I´ve just heard about a granny selling moon dust. Strong stuff, people. Let´s get some action..." This whole thing looks like they were busting some drug dealers. Except they busted a poor old woman... I´m still chocked and horrified. Sorry for my poor English (I´m from Denmark) but somehow I had to react, try to get my feelings out about that whole stupid story....

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 19 Apr 2017 @ 11:53am

      Re: Tell me its not true...

      "how could NASA react this way?"

      I doubt it was an engineer or scientist at NASA that initiated this fiasco, more likely it was a middle management MBA who is desperately attempting to further their career - like those who disregarded the tech advice and launched Challenger anyway.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        David, 19 Apr 2017 @ 1:32pm

        Re: Re: Tell me its not true...

        Nothing to do with "desperately attempting to further their career".

        There are rules. You don't get fired for following the rules. You might get fired for deciding not to follow the rules. Even if the rules are insane: if someone wants your job, breaking even the most asinine of rules will provide leverage.

        Not as much the Nuremberg defense as the Milgram defense, and don't underestimate it.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 19 Apr 2017 @ 8:39pm

          Re: Re: Re: Tell me its not true...

          Disagree - it has everything to do with "desperately attempting to further their career" as this is everyday life here on planet earth, where have you been, on the Moon?

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            David, 20 Apr 2017 @ 6:11am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Tell me its not true...

            Desperation leads to last resort measures. Not interfering with procedure is just default behavior and has nothing to do with "desparately" attempting to further one's career. It's merely the path of least resistance and thinking.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 19 Apr 2017 @ 12:06pm

      Re: Tell me its not true...

      This whole thing looks like they were busting some drug dealers.

      Oh no no no. Actual drug dealers just get their money taken and sent on their way.

      Collecting evidence, performing investigations, going to court... all that takes work, much easier to just take the guilty cash now and throw it in the department's coffers.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Apr 2017 @ 10:21pm

    And the lesson is...

    If you don't want to be detained by law enforcement, just threaten to piss yourself.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    LanceJZ (profile), 23 Apr 2017 @ 11:10pm

    Bad Apples

    You do realize that most people use that expression wrong. As the old saying goes, it is "A few bad apples can spoil the bunch." That makes more sense, does it not? It also holds true as far as the police are concerned.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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