Judge rules Fauquier deputies violated man’s constitutional rights after illegal arrest

Judge’s gavel, Themis sculpture and collection of legal books on the brown background.(Getty Images/iStockphoto/Zolnierek)

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A federal judge has ruled in favor of a man who claimed Fauquier County Sheriff’s deputies violated his Fourth Amendment rights when they arrested and assaulted him.

On Nov. 3, 2020, Matthew Souter, a 56-year-old resident of The Plains, filed a lawsuit with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia alleging Fauquier deputies Creston Irby and Lucas Jacobs and Corp. Andrew McCauley illegally arrested and assaulted him on Nov. 10, 2018, after they responded to a dispute between Souter and his tenant, Melissa Johnson.

According to Souter’s original lawsuit, he and Johnson got into an argument because Johnson’s cat was in the kitchen, which violated the terms of her lease agreement. Consequently, Souter claims he gave Johnson 14 days to vacate the premises.

The same day, Johnson obtained an emergency protective order that stated Souter “shall not commit acts of violence, force, or threat, or criminal offenses resulting in injury to [Johnson] or [her] property.” Johnson then contacted the sheriff’s office and claimed that Souter violated the protective order “by terminating the electricity and water service to Johnson’s bedroom and bathroom.”

Souter said he did not shut off Johnson’s utilities, rather the water turned off due to a “disruption.” He said Johnson had “tripped a breaker in her room” because she used a hot plate, which she was prohibited from doing in the terms of her lease.

According to the suit, Jacobs, after reviewing Johnson’s complaint and the protective order, issued an arrest warrant charging Souter with violating an emergency protective order pertaining to cases of family abuse.

Jacobs had also written in his criminal complaint to the magistrate that Souter additionally violated a separate Virginia statute having to do with an emergency protective order against someone currently or previously incarcerated for committing family abuse. This separate protective order had not been issued against Souter.

Souter said both arrest warrants were “baseless.”

Since this was not a case of family abuse – and turning off Johnson’s electricity was also not considered “an act of violence ” – U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis wrote in his opinion the warrant was “inapplicable,” and therefore Jacobs and the other officers did not have probable cause to arrest Souter.

On March 23, Judge Ellis ruled the three deputies “violated [Souter’s] constitutional rights” and Virginia law when they: 1) “unlawfully arrested” Souter without probable cause or a valid arrest warrant, and 2) used force to carry out the arrest.

Ellis dismissed Souter’s claim that the three deputies had also engaged in “malicious prosecution.”

Ellis stated that Jacobs, Irby and McCauley were also not protected by qualified immunity (a legal precedent protecting government officials – including police officers – accused of violating constitutional rights) because the officers “should have known [Souter’s] arrest was unlawful” and any “reasonably competent government official should know the law governing his conduct.”

Since Ellis granted Souter a summary judgment – awarded if the facts overwhelmingly support one side – the case will not proceed to trial. Rather, both parties may either reach a settlement outside of court or, if negotiations fail, let a court decide the deputies’ financial liability. Any damages paid to Souter would come from a state insurance fund.

Souter’s attorney, Victor Glasberg, told FauquierNow.com that negotiations are still ongoing. But if and when a settlement is reached, he noted, the defense counsel will likely not want the amount to be publicly disclosed.

“Typically, [police] want to have these things kept confidential so the public doesn’t know how much public money is being spent or is being wasted,” Glasberg said. “So there’s usually a gag order on that.”

Defense counsel for officers Jacobs, McCauley and Irby did not respond when asked for comment for this story.

In 2019, Glasberg also represented a married couple from Vint Hill who claimed Irby and another officer used a stun gun on the husband and entered their home without consent or “reasonable cause.” Both parties settled out of court in June 2021 days before a jury trial. The amount of money paid to the couple from the state insurance fund was not made public.

Lieutenant Col. Chad Brubaker with the FCSO told FauquierNow.com that Irby has since left the sheriff’s office. Jacobs and McCauley are each still employed by the sheriff’s office, and both are now detectives, Brubaker said.

When asked if the sheriff’s office plans to make any adjustments to their police procedures, Brubaker said, “We’re evaluating what the judge’s opinion was, and we’ll just go from there.”

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