News and Tribune

January 22, 2014

IN-DEPTH: Findings of investigation into Clark County drug program revealed

Officials' actions leave county 'open for a lawsuit,' investigator finds

By GARY POPP
gary.popp@newsandtribune.com

JEFFERSONVILLE — A private investigator describes the actions of two Clark County Drug Treatment Court employees as having “a pattern of abuse of individuals’ rights” while working in the community — actions that he says could open up the county to a lawsuit.

The investigation, which took place during October, was conducted by Jack Fleeman, a former Jeffersonville police officer who works as a bailiff in Clark County Circuit Court No. 1 and owns Fleeman Investigations, Inc.

At the request of Clark County Circuit Court No. 2 Judge Jerry Jacobi, who oversees the drug court program, Clark County Circuit Court No. 4 Judge Vicki Carmichael hired Fleeman with county tax dollars to conduct the investigation at a cost of $1,050.

The investigation looked into the actions of the drug court’s director and Clark County Probation Officer Susan Knoebel, and Jeremy Snelling, a bailiff in Jacobi’s court who worked as a field officer with the drug court program. The investigation was issued to shed light on a home visit to a drug court participant made by Knoebel and Snelling Sept. 21 and the arrest of another participant who was taken from his place of work Sept. 23 by Knoebel and Snelling.

At issue is the process in which drug court officials go about contacting participants in the program, and their arresting powers.

Jacobi placed Knoebel and Snelling on unpaid leave Jan. 7 — the day after the News and Tribune published an online story about the Sept. 23 arrest of James Hendrick — and the two continue to be on suspensions.

Despite numerous requests, Jacobi has declined to make any comment. A clerk in Jacobi’s office said Wednesday that the judge will not comment because of an ongoing investigation.

Following the completion of Fleeman’s investigation, the Indiana State Police initiated its own investigation and has turned over a report to the Office of the Clark County Prosecutor.

The prosecutor’s office is currently reviewing the submitted information related possible criminal activity of drug court personnel.

THE HOME VISIT

According to Fleeman’s report, his investigation stemmed from a complaint made by Carrie Blanton, a woman who was allowing her childhood friend and drug court participant to temporarily stay with her and her two sons at her Jeffersonville home during her battle against substance abuse.

Blanton emailed Henry Ford, the Clark County Chief Probation Officer, Oct. 1 and expressed her dissatisfaction with a visit made by Knoebel and Snelling to her home.

Knoebel and Snelling had gone to the home about 10:30 p.m. to check on the drug court participant.

Blanton claimed in the email that Knoebel and Snelling came to her home “ ... in full uniform ...  [including police-type boots worn by Snelling]” and “They went through every cabinet, closet and dresser drawer in my home.”

Knoebel and Snelling both later reported that they did not do an extensive home search, but only searched areas in the home that the participant routinely visited, which included the bedroom of Blanton’s oldest son and the home’s refrigerator.

Knoebel told Fleeman she was wearing street clothes during the visit, but did carry a firearm at the time.

“I am hoping that something will be done about this incident and violation of my rights of privacy,” Blanton wrote to Ford. “I am extremely upset that it [the home visit] occurred at all, and it really leaves me questioning a system that I have always had so much faith in and respect for.”

While Ford is the head of the Clark County Probation Department where Knoebel is employed, he recused himself of the issue by forwarding Blanton’s email complaint to Carmichael and Jacobi, who in turn hired the services of Fleeman.

During his investigation, Fleeman interviewed Knoebel Oct. 8, at which time she said the house call to Blanton’s home was “a routine home visit to a Drug Court client.”

Fleeman reported, “Knoebel denied any type of extensive search nor ransacking occurred during the visit.”

She also told Fleeman that no law enforcement agency was present during the home visit.

The day after speaking with Knoebel, Fleeman interviewed Snelling.

Snelling told Fleeman he was not wearing a uniform, as Blanton had stated, but had worn a black polo shirt, slacks and a belt, which held a firearm, badge, flashlight and handcuffs.

During the interview, “Snelling pointed out that the drug court program had several clients who recently ‘absconded’ and Judge Jacobi had instructed them to ‘ramp up’ home visits,” Fleeman reported.

Before completing his investigation, Fleeman spoke with Blanton Oct. 15.

Blanton told Fleeman she expected a drug court official to make a visit to the home, at some point, and, perhaps, search through her friend’s belongings in the home.

She did say, however, “ ... the late hour of the visit caught her off guard ... ” and that she had thought both Snelling and Knoebel were law enforcement officers. Blanton said the two did not present her with any documentation to verify their authority.

Fleeman reported that the search at Blanton’s home, “ ... sounded very familiar as a search warrant being executed.”

He also wrote that Blanton’s report “has indicated there is a pattern of abuse of individuals’ rights.”

FLEEMAN’S FINDINGS, UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

A key issue is whether Knoebel and Snelling abused their authority — and what exactly are their powers as drug court officials.

In recent interviews, Knoebel and Snelling have said that they follow orders provided by Jacobi. Knoebel also said she follows the Indiana Probation Safety and Security manual which has been adopted by Ford; she has attributed her staff’s authority to handcuff drug court participants in a chapter that reads “probation officers may be required to transport adult or juvenile probations,” even though Snelling is not a probation officer. Knoebel has justified Snelling following those guidelines because he’s under her supervision.

Snelling said he was told directly by Jacobi to leave the courthouse on Sept. 23 and bring Hendrick, the drug court participant taken from Rocky’s Sub Pub restaurant during his work shift, to the Clark County jail. Hendrick is only one of many people Snelling has admitted to placing in handcuffs and transporting to the jail.

But with no uniformed police officers accompanying drug court staff on visits, Fleeman goes so far as to say that “is no excuse to dress up and act as police officers,” and that Knoebel and Snelling act like “‘authorities’ who are dressed as law enforcement officers.”

Their actions could have much more serious consequences.

Fleeman wrote that “wearing police garb, carrying sidearms, making arrests and adding in late evening unannounced home visits, such as the visit to Blanton’s home, are leaving the county open for a lawsuit.”

Also in question is exactly how far the issue goes up the food chain — why did Jacobi request an investigation? — and who ultimately might be held responsible. That might not be answered until Clark County Prosecutor Steve Stewart has completed his review of ISP documents and determines if drug court personnel acted unlawfully.

“The Drug Court program is an excellent alternative for many,” Fleeman wrote. “Perhaps, the procedure in the administration of the program need to be revisited and some changes made.”