News and Tribune

February 17, 2014

Clark County drug program officials to face civil complaint

Attorney plans to file federal claim this week in New Albany

By GARY POPP
gary.popp@newsandtribune.com

LOUISVILLE — Louisville attorney Mike Augustus is preparing to file a civil complaint against those he claims are responsible for the mistreatment of Clark County Drug Treatment Court program participants — which includes allegations of unlawful arrest and incarceration.

Augustus said he will represent six drug court participants and two others, including one who is claiming mistreatment from the Clark County Probation Department’s work release program.

Augustus expects to file the claim early this week in the Southern District of Indiana federal court located in New Albany. He said it is possible even more people will be added to his list of plaintiffs before he files the document.

The issues came to light last month when a Clark County deputy prosecutor discovered that Destiny Hoffman — who is named in Augustus’ complaint — was being held in Clark County jail nearly five months after she was given a two-day sanction.

Augustus did not officially say who the defendants will be in the complaint, but said the list will be lengthy.

“It is going to be a lot of people,” he said. “That is one of the tricks we are going through. Our thoughts now are it is going to be [Jeremy] Snelling, it’s going to be [Susan] Knoebel, it’s going to be the [Clark County] probation department, likely, [and] likely, [Clark] county and a few others.”

Susan Knoebel was the drug court program director at the time of the misconduct that Augustus is claiming. She was terminated from the position late last month. Snelling is a former drug court program field officer. He was placed on unpaid leave Jan 7.

Augustus said Clark County Circuit Court No. 2 Judge Jerry Jacobi, who oversees the drug court program from the circuit court, is exempt from the civil complaint.

While Jacobi has judicial immunity and Augustus can’t ask a federal judge to take action against him, Augustus said he could ask a federal judge “to declare that what he [Jacobi] has been doing is unconstitutional.”

“It is called declaratory judgment,” he said. “There is no money that changes hands, but I think it would be important, not just for our individual clients, but for future citizens of Clark County to have declaration that what has happened is unconstitutional, so it won’t happen in the future.”

Augustus said he was motivated to take the civil case because he thinks drug court officials in Clark County have abused their authority and if no one takes a stand, the abuse will continue.

“I think it is very, very important for there to be safeguards and protections put in place so counties and states can’t do what they did to these people in drug court. It’s kind of that simple,” he said. “My individual clients have been definitely impacted by it. I think every drug court participant has been punished by it. But, there are a whole lot of other people in Clark County who could be negatively impacted by this in the future.”

Augustus said drug court officials have made unlawful arrests and have stripped the program’s participants of their constitutionally protected rights of due process.

“The bottom line is that by the protection of constitutional rights, in practical today terms, you might be protecting those who have been convicted of a crime or people who have succumbed to drugs and who have been rightfully found guilty of crime,” he said. “But, you have to protect constitutional rights because it is the pure definition of a slippery slope.

“If you give state actors and state authorities the power to do those things to those convicted of a crime, very soon it will slide down and you will have private citizens that this is happening to. We are trying to protect every citizen, convicted or not, and I want to live in a country where people can’t do that. And, if they do, people like me and my clients will stand up and say, ‘No, no, no. Not any more. Enough.’”

Augustus’ clients include drug court participant Amy Bennett, who claims she was arrested by Snelling and Knoebel at her home. While not related to the civil complaint, Snelling and Knoebel were investigated for the arrest of another participant at his place of work. Both have claimed they do not have the power to make an arrest, but have plucked the participants from the community and “transported” them to jail when the participant surrenders to the transport.

They also claim they followed the drug court’s guidelines while conducting the transports.

“If you are going to somebody’s house, like one of my clients, they [drug court officials] had guns drawn and they put handcuffs on her, if you don’t have arrest powers under Indiana law, that is illegal,” Augustus said. “I can’t imagine the rules and regulations allow for that because that is different than transport.”

In his complaint, Augustus will also represent Destiny Hoffman, who claims she was jailed for nearly five months without being taken before a judge.

He said any alleged offender, drug court participant or not, is required to appear before a judge within three business days of being arrested according to Indiana statute. And, offenders must be taken before the judge, again, if they are held for more than a two-week, or so, period.

Augustus said the hearing is also designed to inform the person of his or her rights, the purported allegation[s] and bond.

He said when a person is jailed for more than a 48-hour or 72-hour sanction, a second hearing is required, “ ... in which the violator has a right to an attorney, has a right to question the evidence against him, [and] cross examine the probation officer who is claiming they violated.”

Augustus said some drug court participants were jailed without a genuine probation violation, but that is not the issue he plans to correct in Clark County through the complaint.

“Our argument is, regardless, it doesn’t really matter, there needs to be a determination [before a judge]. That is the over-arching thing,” Augustus said. “Without having a judge, or any independent person to weigh this in open court and give the alleged violator a chance to argue his case, so to speak, it is a violation. The due process is, basically, they were in jail for extended periods with no voice, no opportunity and no attorney in most cases, and that is just illegal.”

Some of Augustus’ clients include those who were determined to have a diluted or failed drug screen — including Hoffman, who never saw a judge until the day of her release.

“The entire purpose of the Bill of Rights is to make a uniform set of rules so you don’t give discretion to a probation officer in Southern Indiana to make their own decisions about whether somebody has a dirty [drug] screen or not,” Augustus said. “Maybe the screen was dirty and maybe the alleged violator would admit to it, but before they are [jailed] for four of five months, there still has to be [a hearing].”

Augustus said a drug court program can give a participant the tough love needed to beat a drug addiction, but the program must be administered properly.

“In theory, these drug court programs are a great idea, and a lot of my clients would say that it has helped them in a lot of ways,” he said. “I have a problem with the way Clark County administers the program because I will guarantee [the guidelines] of those programs passed constitutional muster. None of them [documents] say that what Clark County did was right.”

Augustus said it is too early to determine if the complaint will reach a jury trial or if a financial settlement from the host of defendants will be offered.

“In terms of dollar figures, we haven’t really even began the process. We haven’t really been focusing on that aspect,” he said. “Now, we have just been focusing just on what happened, is it illegal and why is it illegal. Those three questions.”