Federal Court Advances a Singular Claim in Stuffed Animal & Police Misconduct Lawsuit
Written by: Sam Orlando
When the Sheriff Said No to Body Cams, Suiter Said Yes to Filming Fluffy Traffic Stops Staunton, VA — It was a twist that no one saw coming, especially not at a Sheetz gas station in Staunton. Police auditor and Shenandoah Valley's Black Lives Matter Group President, Antwhon Suiter, stumbled upon a peculiar sight: Deputy Dylan Johnson of the Augusta County Sheriff's Office, allegedly filling his police cruiser with stuffed animals.
Suiter says he found these actions from the Augusta County Deputy suspicious. Suiter reasoned the Deputy was outside of his jurisdiction, and knowing the County doesn't utilize body camera devices, decided to record the deputy himself. Suiter promptly grabbed his camera to document the incident, but things escalated when Suiter continued to film the deputy after he departed the Sheetz, and he was pulled over by the deputy. Now, a federal court has decided to proceed with one of Suiter's claims against Johnson, while dismissing several others.
The Good News, or "You Can't Always Get What You Want" The court gave the green light to Suiter's Fourth Amendment claim, while waving goodbye to his other allegations, such as false arrest and excessive force. It's a small step forward for Suiter, whose confrontation with Deputy Johnson has sparked a considerable debate on the role of police and citizens' rights to document law enforcement.
"The fact that one claim is moving forward is a testament to the power of the Fourth Amendment," said Suiter. "It's about making sure that everyone has a freedom of unreasonable search and seizure—even when pointing a camera at a police officer surrounded by plush toys."
Camera, Action, Retaliation: The Fine Print of Filming the Fuzz The incident happened in the city of Staunton, notably outside of Deputy Johnson's jurisdiction in Augusta County. The case revolves around whether Suiter's constitutional rights were violated when he was pulled over for following and filming Johnson after the gas station encounter.
In a recent magistrate recommendation, the court dismissed some of Suiter's claims but let one proceed, reminding us all that in the courtroom, just like in life, you can't always get what you want—but sometimes, you get what you need.
The Bad News, or "But Sometimes, You Get What You Need" The magistrate recommendation wasn't all sunshine, rainbows, and stuffed animals for Suiter, though. The First Amendment claim that his right to film Johnson was retaliated against? Axed. Reason? Qualified immunity. Apparently, the Fourth Circuit Court isn't sold on the "clearly established right" to film police officers in these specific circumstances. It's as if the court said, "Your filming rights in this setting are as clearly established as Bigfoot's residency in Virginia."
Why Virginia's IIED Claim Melted Faster Than Frosty in August The 14th Amendment claims were dismissed as well. It appears that the First and Fourth Amendments are the headliners, and the 14th Amendment was trying to be a cover band that nobody paid to see.
Then there was the Virginia Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED) claim. Let's just say it met the same fate as a snowman in July. The court found that although Suiter alleged emotional distress, his immediate vocal stance against Johnson's actions didn't fit the 'so severe no reasonable person could endure it' bill.
Interestingly, the court pointed out that Suiter was anything but "chilled" in expressing his opinions to the officer both during and after the incident. If anything, Suiter was "spitting hot fire" of legal awareness, which might have melted any chance of claiming severe emotional distress.
Not shy to speak his mind, Suiter retorted to the Court with an objection to the magistrate Judge's recommendation, asking the District Court Judge to review his decisions related to the dismissed claims.
The Twisty, Turny Road Ahead While one claim in Suiter's lawsuit is moving forward faster than a rumor in a small town, the dismissal of his other claims reminds us that legal battles are a complex game of 3D chess—sometimes you move forward, sometimes sideways, and sometimes you're knocked off the board entirely.
As the courtroom clock ticks on, will Suiter emerge as the legal victor, or will he face a defeat more crushing than finding out your childhood stuffed animals were stuffed in the back of a police cruiser? Will the Sheriff remain content that his deputies have no video evidence of their own from body cameras, to counteract what a citizen with a camera might say? Either way, law enthusiasts and plushie aficionados alike, keep your eyes peeled and your gavels at the ready as the case of Suiter v. Johnson appears likely to move forward to trial.