A Springfield, Illinois, man is suing the city and six of its police officers for opening a small urn containing his daughter’s ashes and allegedly “desecrating” it during a traffic stop.
In his lawsuit, Dartavius Barnes claims that the officers violated his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure. Barnes also claims the officers stopped his car initially without reasonable suspicion or probable cause that Barnes had committed a crime, according to the lawsuit filed by Barnes’ attorney, James C. Pullos.
The lawsuit also accuses the police department of violating his Fourth Amendment rights of unlawful search and seizure of his vehicle without probable cause, a valid search warrant, or consent, and claims the officers acted intentionally and maliciously.
In its response to the lawsuit, the city denied Barnes’ claims and maintained the city and its officers are protected by “qualified immunity as their conduct was justified by an objectively reasonable belief that it was lawful.”
The Springfield city attorney, Emily A. Fancher, declined to comment to CNN. “Unfortunately, I am not permitted to expand upon the contents of our answer at this time,” Fancher said.
The Springfield Police Department also declined to comment when contacted by CNN.
Barnes has declined to speak with CNN about this incident.
Body camera footage shows traffic stop and search
The traffic stop occurred on April 6, 2020, when Barnes was pulled over by a Springfield Police officer for speeding and running a stop sign, according to the police incident report.
The officer who stopped Barnes’ car stated in his incident report that he heard through department radio that Barnes was also a potential suspect from a nearby report of shots fired.
Barnes’ vehicle was shot one time in the passenger side rear fender, according to a police incident report. “It is unknown if the blue Chrysler driven by (Dartavius Barnes) was a target of the shooter or was hit by the round,” the incident report states.
“I had Dartavius exit the car and secured him in handcuffs,” and sat him in the backseat of the officer’s patrol car, according to the incident report.
Body camera footage of the incident was recently published and obtained from the police department by CNN. The footage showed that Barnes sat inside in a police vehicle for nearly 30 minutes after he was stopped.
Five other officers who were also on patrol came onto the scene and searched the vehicle.
“No problem if I search?” an officer asks Barnes in the video.
“Yeah, go ahead,” Barnes states, as police search his car.
In the bodycam footage, an officer is seen holding a sealed urn which he found during his search. The incident report states a brass object was discovered which was shaped like a rifle round. “I have seen similar items like this before utilized to contain narcotics,” the officer wrote in the report.
“Then I checked for cocaine, but it looks like it’s probably molly,” the officer says in the bodycam video to one of his colleagues.
In the video, police tell Barnes they found a substance in his car that tested positive for drugs, specifically ecstasy or meth. The substance was instead the ashes of his deceased 2-year-old daughter, Ta’Naja Barnes, which were kept in a sealed urn.
The brass object shaped like a “rifle round” or a bullet is a commonly used cremation urn necklace worn by individuals.
“No, no, no, bro. That’s my daughter. What are y’all doing bro … give me that bro, that’s my daughter,” Barnes says in the video when officers showed him the urn.
Police decided not to re-test the ashes and gave the urn back to Barnes’ father, who had arrived on the scene in a separate car.
“Common sense, though, man,” Barnes’ father is heard saying the video, regarding the contents of the urn.
Ashes were ‘desecrated’
The lawsuit claims the officers “desecrated” his daughter’s ashes when they spilled some of them during the search.
Barnes’ daughter Ta’Naja was living with her mother, Twan’ka Davis, and her mother’s boyfriend before her death on February 11, 2019, and the Macon County Coroner’s Office found that Ta’Naja died due to neglect, starvation, dehydration and the cold, according to CNN affiliate WICS.
Davis and her boyfriend, Anthony Myers, were sentenced to prison for their roles in her death. Myers is serving 30 years in prison after he was found guilty of first-degree murder, according to WICS and court documents. Davis is serving 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to first-degree murder, according to WICS and court documents.
A trial on Barnes’ lawsuit against the city is scheduled for August 2022, according to court documents.
According to the lawsuit, Barnes is asking for “compensatory and punitive damages in an amount to be determined at trial” along with attorney’s fees, costs, and litigation expenses and any other “relief as the Court may deem just or equitable.”