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Fifth Circuit Says No Immunity For Officer Who Framed A Man By Claiming The Man Framed Himself

from the what-the-actual-fuck dept

This reads like a film script and plays like a farce. It is one of the most insane decisions you’ll ever read. And it’s not because the Fifth Circuit Appeals Court did something insane. It’s because everything leading up to the decision plays out like a Coen brothers crime film and keeps escalating from there. Buckle up. And many thanks to Public Accountability for highlighting this decision in its recent roundup of Appeals Court activity.

In this case, the lower court decided the Bossier Parish (LA) law enforcement officers involved in the arrest and prosecution of resident Todd Phillips did not deserve the protection of qualified immunity. They appealed, claiming that framing the wrong man for a series of property crimes was not a violation of clearly defined right. The Fifth Circuit Appeals Court — somewhat unusually — disagrees. 

But the road we take to this conclusion is well worth traveling. It all begins with a series of criminal acts targeting hunters. Todd Phillips’ only involvement is that he happened to be in the wrong place (Bossier Parish) at the wrong time (while Lt. Bruce Bletz was an investigator for the Bossier Parish Sheriff’s Office). 

Phillips moved to the Parish in 2004, purchasing 28 acres so he could raise his family and his horses. Nothing happened for years. Then in 2010 — and continuing for eight years — a series of criminal acts targeting hunters occurred near the Phillips’ property.

From the decision [PDF]:

The perpetrator had a recognized modus operandi. He would frequently use homemade spikes to pop the tires of vehicles, and burn down or steal from deer camps, deer stands, and camp houses. The perpetrator would also leave behind or mail various threatening letters to locals, police, and attorneys involved with this case. Finally, the perpetrator would plant evidence at crime scenes apparently to frame local residents. The consistent practices led the Bossier Parish Sheriff’s Office (“BSO”) to conclude that all acts were completed by the same person.

A footnote provides more detail.

For example, at the scene of an October 2010 theft, a hammer with the initials of a local, Larry Coker, was left behind on the property—the police, however, did not suspect Coker. At the scene of a December 2010 spike planting, a shirt and walkie-talkie were left behind with the name of a different local, Landon Burns, written on the shirt—that local was cleared. In June 2011, a town resident received an anonymous call claiming a third local, Gregory Bickham, was responsible for the various acts and hid the stolen property at his home—but the BSO executed a search warrant for Bickham’s home, found no stolen property, and cleared him. And in September 2011, a cell-phone box belonging to a fourth local, Billy Joe Fletcher, was left behind at the scene of an arson—the BSO investigated Fletcher and determined he was not a suspect.

There was more. A deer stand owned by another resident was burned down and a GPS device stolen. On the same night in November 2012, the Sheriff’s Office found an “incendiary device” consisting up a Powerade Zero bottle filled with diesel. Also found in the same search: a bute (an anti-inflammatory for horses) syringe with the name “Phillips” written on it.

Lt. Bruce Bletz decided Todd Phillips was the most likely perp. A warrant was obtained and the Phillips home was searched. 

The search revealed nothing of evidentiary value.

This did not deter Lt. Bletz. More crimes were committed, with evidence from the scenes pointing to other perpetrators. Bletz also obtained a warrant to place a GPS tracker on Phillips’ vehicle. GPS data showed Todd Phillips was never in the vicinity of other criminal acts that occurred following the placement of the device.

Despite this lack of evidence, Lt. Bletz continued to pursue Phillips with the doggedness (but none of the intelligence) of Lt. Columbo, arriving at this extremely novel theory.

Lt. Bletz continued to suspect that Todd was responsible for the crime spree. The theory was that Todd decided to frame himself in order to clear his name.

Ah, yes. The classic criminal dodge: make yourself a suspect to remove yourself from the list of suspects. Using this theory, Lt. Bletz continued in his misguided “investigation.” Somehow, his investigation involved the placement of signs on the road leading to Phillips’ property — ones that quoted bible verses with the intent of provoking Phillips into committing more crimes against hunters.

Lt. Bletz could not be dissuaded, despite the concerns of other BSO investigators.

In June 2013, Lt. Bletz consulted with other members of the BSO and the local district attorney to determine whether they could file charges against Todd. The district attorney advised that there was not sufficient evidence to formally charge Todd.

The crime spree continued. And the Phillips family moved 60 miles away to Marshal, Texas to avoid being suspected on any additional crimes. That didn’t matter to Lt. Bletz, who continued to engage in a single-source investigation that pitted his vendetta against a dearth of evidence implicating his prime suspect. That managed to raise questions inside the Sheriff’s Office.

In March and June of 2015, a BSO detective and subordinate of Lt. Bletz, Mike Lombardino, investigated a vandalism and burglary and concluded that Wilson was the probable perpetrator of both. He advised Lt. Bletz of his conclusion, but Lt. Bletz said Wilson was cleared and told the detective to mark those cases inactive. Lombardino reported Lt. Bletz’s apparent blind spot to Captain Shawn Phillips, but nobody at the BSO disclosed these incidents to the district attorney.

Now, let’s scroll back to earlier in the decision and take a look at this pair of sentences.

Lt. Bletz began to use Gary Wilson as his confidential informant, and the two communicated regularly. The BSO now believes that Wilson was the real perpetrator of these crimes, and state charges are currently pending against him

Lt. Bletz liked his informant and suspected him of nothing. He apparently didn’t like Phillips and suspected him of everything. Somehow, Bletz managed to avoid scrutiny and present his highly questionable findings as evidence. But, in order to do so, Bletz had to basically lie to his employer, the courts, and Phillips’ defense lawyer.

In July 2015, Lt. Bletz was tasked with preparing the narrative supplement that accused Todd of simple criminal damage to property based on the placing of tire spikes. The report documented dozens of incidents from the broader crime spree, but it did not include incidents that could be read to exculpate Todd—such as the perpetrator framing a different local before Todd, the March and June 2015 incidents where Wilson was the prime suspect, and several incidents where Todd had an alibi. Lt. Bletz and Wilson continued to frequently communicate, and Lt. Bletz repeatedly told Wilson that he believed Todd to be the perpetrator of the crimes.

Somehow, this display of monomaniacal police work resulted in criminal charges cromulent enough to be addressed by prosecutors. ADA Holland sent a plea deal to Todd Phillips, asking him to plead guilty to a single charge and pay nearly $60,000 in restitution. This was rejected.

The District Attorney’s Office — recognizing the lack of direct evidence — told the court it would be admitting plenty of other evidence to support additional charges against Phillips. 30 witnesses were called, but Lt. Bletz was the state’s key witness.

Lt. Bletz lied. Repeatedly.

The Phillipses allege that Lt. Bletz made various false statements during his testimony. Regarding the Powerade bottle that was a part of an incendiary device, Lt. Bletz reported both that Todd identified the bottle as his own and that only Todd would have been able to identify the bottle due to its charring. In fact, the Powerade bottle could be identified clearly by any viewer, and the Phillipses reported that Todd did not purchase that bottle, but rather, drank Gatorade. Lt. Bletz testified that the failed incendiary device was put out by rain due to a hole in the deer stand’s roof, but, according to Caston, that deer stand never had a roof. Regarding Todd’s motive, Lt. Bletz testified that Todd was aggravated at the suggestion that the crimes were completed by kids and not a “highly intelligent, motivated adult with a… deep-seeded hatred for hunters,” when in actuality, Todd did not so react. He testified that he discussed placement of the three signs outside of the Phillipses’ home with the district attorney and a psychologist prior to placing them; however, he placed them without such consultations.

Lies upon lies.

He reported that the Phillipses told him that they “fundamentally disagreed with hunting,” when in fact they expressed support for hunting. He reported that the Phillipses told him it was impossible for someone to access their property without them knowing due to the attentive, aggressive nature of their guard dogs; but the Phillipses stated it could be possible for someone to access their property without their knowing and that their dogs were not guard dogs, but family pets. Lt. Bletz also stated Todd had told him that the Coleman fuel bottle was likely his, but Todd did not say that.

Somehow, the state court still managed to find evidence implicated Phillips in five cases — a small minority of the large number committed over a period of seven years (to that point). However, the crimes and threats continued, despite Phillips being arrested. A new task force was formed to investigate the criminal acts — one that now excluded Lt. Bletz. The end result was the dropping of all charges against Phillips and the bringing of charges against Gary Wilson, Lt. Bletz’s favorite informant.

No qualified immunity for Lt. Bruce Bletz. He will continue to face the consequences of his actions at the district court level. And, if there’s any justice in the world, an officer who framed someone (while claiming the suspect tried to frame himself) will be forced to make this right and (even more hopefully) be forced to find employment somewhere far removed from public service.

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