BATON ROUGE, La. — A federal investigation revealed last year that authorities in a rural Louisiana parish routinely used illegal "investigative holds" to arrest hundreds of people for questioning, secretly keeping them jailed for days on nothing more than a "hunch."
But a federal judge's ruling could preclude most of these people from getting any class-action compensation for their ordeals.
In a court filing last Friday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick Hanna recommended dismissing three people's claims because they were freed from jail more than a year before their lawyers sued the city of Ville Platte and Evangeline Parish Sheriff's Office over the arrests. A district court judge must decide whether to adopt Hanna's recommendations.
Plaintiffs' lawyers argued that a one-year statute of limitations shouldn't apply in this case because people were told to keep silent. And these unconstitutional arrests in Evangeline Parish were a "regular part of criminal investigations" for more than two decades, the Justice Department said in a December 2016 report.
People often were strip-searched, held in cells without beds, toilets or showers and detained for at least three days — sometimes much longer — without getting a chance to talk to loved ones or contest their arrests, the department's report says. Detectives told federal investigators they used these investigative holds when they didn't have sufficient grounds for an arrest but had a "hunch" or "feeling" that somebody may be involved in criminal activity.
One woman told federal investigators that police detained her and her family in 2014 after they went grocery shopping and may have witnessed an armed robbery and shooting. The woman wasn't a suspect, only a possible witness, but she said she was detained, strip-searched and jailed for roughly nine hours before police questioned her.
The Justice Department, which began investigating in April 2015, counted a "staggering" number of investigative holds for such a sparsely populated community: Ville Platte police officers used the practice more than 700 times between 2012 and 2014; the sheriff's office made more than 200 such arrests over the same period.
Evangeline Parish, approximately 80 miles west of Baton Rouge, has a population of roughly 34,000 residents. Ville Platte has approximately 7,300 residents, with blacks accounting for 64 percent of the city's population.
Plaintiffs' attorneys said officers threatened people with more jail time if they discussed what happened to them. FBI agents who questioned some potential class members told them not to discuss the federal investigation until after the Justice Department released its findings, the lawyers said.
On March 1, attorneys filed the class action on behalf of four named plaintiffs. Three of them had been released from investigative holds more than four years before the suit was filed, so Hanna recommended dismissing their claims.
Hanna said nobody alleged that federal authorities questioned any of the four plaintiffs or told them not to discuss their claims.
"Similarly, there is no allegation that anyone stopped the plaintiffs from attempting to file a lawsuit at any time," he wrote.
Plaintiffs' lawyers also argued that their clients lacked the education or sophistication to know they could have viable claims, but Hanna said they had enough information to investigate that.
Frank Schirripa, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys, said they likely will file an objection to Hanna's recommendations.
Earlier this month, a settlement agreement resolved a separate lawsuit that three people filed against the city of Ville Platte and its police chief, Neal Lartigue. The suit accused police of arresting the three people in 2014 and jailing them without explanation. Settlement terms haven't been disclosed, and an attorney for the city declined to comment Tuesday.
In its report, the Justice Department said the police department and sheriff's office admitted that the holds are unconstitutional and took "laudable steps to begin eliminating their use."
"More work remains to be done," the Justice Department said. "The agencies also must work to repair community trust, because many people may still be justifiably reluctant to provide information to law enforcement for fear that doing so could subject them to an unconstitutional detention."