Posted on Feb 27 2007
Deadbeat dads claiming they were illegally arrested by civilians posing as state marshals during a sweep in Waterbury last October have sued the state.
The lawsuit was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Hartford by Larry Mason and Modesto Rodriguez, two of the 11 men rounded up in the sweep. It alleges that employees of the state Judicial Branch and the State Marshal Commission did nothing to prevent two civilians - Michael and Raymond Brown - from participating in the raids.
But the lawsuit makes it clear that Mason and Rodriguez aren't the only two men who will be seeking restitution from the state. Hartford Attorney A. Paul Spinella said as many as 242 others could seek damages if a federal judge allows the lawsuit class action status.
Spinella said many of those men have been arrested by Michael Brown, posing as a state marshal over the past few years.
Brown, who is not a marshal, has been assisting licensed state marshals from the Waterbury area in serving court papers on fathers who owe court-ordered child support.
"People are used to unlawful arrest cases involving police brutality, but this is a totally different kind of seizure because the arrests were done by improper people," Spinella said.
"Some of these people were virtually taken off the street and given the authority to go into someone's home, seize them and drag them out of their homes," Spinella said. "This was a pretty big breach of the public's trust."
The lawsuit names specific individuals within the Judicial Branch in charge of the support enforcement division and not the department as a whole. The suit also names three marshals involved in the Waterbury raid: John Barbieri, who organized it, Brian Hobart and Jon Gallup.
Attorneys familiar with lawsuits against police departments or against the state said the lawsuit raises interesting issues.
"Clearly there isn't a posse law where you can just deputize some citizens and round people up, so it is a troubling case," Bethany attorney Norman Pattis said.
But the question then, Pattis said, is what would the damages be?
"Is this a case where you had the wrong people doing the right thing?" Pattis said.
Attorney William Bloss of Koskoff, Koskoff and Bieder said the lawsuit appears to qualify as a class action, but it will be difficult to sue specific judicial officials, who may have immunity.
"To say the immunity issues are going to be multi-layered and terribly complicated is a serious understatement," Bloss said. "On the other hand, private citizens shouldn't be arresting people. It's a colossally bad idea where nothing good can come out of it."
Judicial Branch officials declined to comment on the lawsuit Monday, but they have quietly been preparing for the possibility of being sued. Judicial officials have met at least once with Attorney General Richard Blumenthal's staff to discuss their legal options.
The department's own legal counsel has already indicated that Michael Brown had no legal authority to participate in rounding up deadbeat dads when he ruled the department didn't have to pay Brown for 24 bills he submitted.
Brown listed himself as an "indifferent person" on 10 of the 11 pay sheets submitted after the Waterbury raid. He listed himself as a state marshal on one.
Under state statutes, an "indifferent person" can serve certain legal papers such as eviction notices. But the statutes do not allow them to serve court orders, according to Joseph J. Del Ciampo, the counsel for the Judicial Branch's Legal Services Division.
Since 2004, Michael Brown has been paid to serve legal papers on 134 deadbeat dads, according to Judicial Branch records. Brown is not the only person who has submitted bills for serving such warrants under the designation of an "indifferent person." In the past two years, the Judicial Branch has paid 111 bills submitted by indifferent persons, although the majority of them - 87 bills - belonged to Brown, records show.
Barbieri, Hobart and Gallup are involved in a hearing before a three-panel committee of the State Marshal Commission that could result in the men's losing their licenses or being fined.
Barbieri, who organized the Oct. 21 sweep, is facing three allegations. He is alleged to have used his powers to allow Brown to participate in the sweep and then to sign vouchers and get paid for serving legal documents known as capiases.
The chairman of the State Marshal Commission Chairman, Dennis Kerrigan, one of the officials named in the lawsuit, said the marshals are independent contractors under the law.
"To sue the marshal commission for something a marshal does would be akin to suing the Architectural Licensing Board for a bad house design," Kerrigan said. "We merely appoint the marshals but we don't control them or their individual actions."
Raymond Brown has denied any wrongdoing and said he stayed in the car during the raids. He has said he went along to make sure the marshals got the right houses. He did not sign any capiases or participate in any arrests, the marshal commission investigation found.
Michael Brown told investigators from the marshal commission that he was accompanying Barbieri as an "administrative assistant" and at no time did anything illegal. Michael Brown did say he removed handcuffs from one man.
Both Browns may have been wearing jackets with "State Marshals" written on them on the front and back, the commission's investigative report indicates.
By DAVE ALTIMARI
Courant Staff Writer