CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. —Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have identified eight members of a tactical police squad in an amended complaint to a lawsuit against Virginia police over a “welfare check” on a 58-year-old man that resulted in a two-hour, SWAT team-style raid on the man’s truck and a 72-hour mental health hold.
In documents filed with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, Rutherford Institute attorneys named specific members of the Albemarle County Police Department tactical team who were previously identified only as “John Does” because of the County’s resistance to Freedom of Information Act requests. As the November 2015 lawsuit makes clear, despite the fact that police acknowledged they had no legal basis nor probable cause for detaining Benjamin Burruss, given that he had not threatened to harm anyone, was not suspected of any criminal activity, and was not mentally ill, a police tactical team confronted Burruss, surrounded his truck, deployed a “stinger” device behind the rear tires, launched a flash grenade, smashed the side window in order to drag him from the truck, handcuffed and searched him, and transported him to a local hospital for a psychiatric evaluation and mental health hold. Affiliate attorney Michael Winget-Hernandez is assisting The Rutherford Institute with the lawsuit, which charges police with violating the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments as well as state law.
“This is just one more example of how a relatively benign situation (a routine welfare check) gets escalated into something far more violent and dangerous through the use of militarized police, armed to the teeth and trained to react combatively,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “The unnecessary use of force by police officers in response to a situation that should have—and could have—been handled non-confrontationally did not, in this instance, result in a loss of life, but that is small consolation to those who have learned to tread cautiously in their interactions with police.”
According to the complaint, on Nov. 21, 2013, Albemarle County police officers were asked to conduct a “welfare check” on Benjamin Burruss by his employer. Police confronted Burruss as he was leaving the Comfort Inn and preparing to leave for a hunting trip to Montana. Burruss informed officers that he was fine, had no plans to hurt anyone, and just needed time to think through things, hence the trip to Montana. For two hours, officers persisted in asking Burruss to exit his truck and speak with them, with Burruss continuing to reiterate that he had no intention of harming himself or others and just wanted to be left alone and allowed to go on his hunting trip. During this time, police deployed a “stinger” device behind Burruss’s truck. Police also surrounded Burruss’s truck with their squad cars, blocking his exit. The officer speaking with Burruss informed the other officers that they had no reason to hold Burruss because he had not threatened to harm anyone and he was not mentally ill. Nevertheless, a tactical team of heavily-armed police launched a flash grenade at Burruss’ truck, smashed the driver-side window, dragged Burruss out by his arms, handcuffed, searched and arrested him. Burruss was forced to undergo a psychiatric evaluation and locked up under a mental health hold.