Laurel Residents and ACLU Sue Police Over Wrongful Searches

Affiliate: ACLU of Montana
October 8, 1999 12:00 am

ACLU Affiliate
ACLU of Montana
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BILLINGS, MT — In a lawsuit filed here today in Montana State District Court, Georgette Demarais and her son Lawrence say that Laurel police officers wrongfully searched them, in violation of their state and federal civil and constitutional rights.

The lawsuit, filed by the ACLU of Montana on behalf of the Demarais family, asks the court to find that the officers wrongfully searched and arrested Lawrence Demarais when they entered his home last year without a warrant and ordered him out of his bed at gunpoint.

Additionally, the suit states that on the following day, these officers wrongfully searched his mother with no legitimate suspicion that she committed a crime. The suit asks that the court award damages to compensate them for the violation of their civil and constitutional rights.

Demarais spent more than a week in jail, during which time he missed a significant amount of work and lost an opportunity to buy a home for himself, his common-law spouse, and their two young children. Once he obtained a public defender, however, all charges against him were dismissed.

According to the ACLU’s complaint, the Demarais’ ordeal began when Laurel Police responded to a call on January 17, 1998, that a young woman had been threatened at gunpoint after confronting a man she thought had stolen a stereo from her brother’s car. The incident occurred near Mrs. Demarais’ home and the police went to her home to question Lane Demarais because he had a non-violent juvenile criminal record.

When the police talked with her husband and discovered that Lane had been at home during the assault, they next went to his brother Lawrence’s home at 2 a.m., shoved their way inside with guns drawn, arrested him in his bedroom and searched his apartment. At the police station, they handcuffed him to a chair and when he was surrounded by police officers with no other civilians in the room, the officers asked the victim to come in to identify him. After he spent more than a week in jail, all the charges against him were dropped.

Georgette Demarais was searched the following morning after her son’s arrest when she went to his home to drive him to work as she does every day. Demarais’ common-law spouse told her what had happened and she returned to her truck. But she was unable to leave because an unmarked Laurel police car had parked behind her, blocking her exit.

Without a warrant and without Mrs. Demarais’ consent, the officers searched her truck, her purse and her person. During the search, the officers opened her coat, revealing that she was wearing only pajamas, and used a flashlight to prod at her body.

“It is clear that the officers did not have a warrant to rouse Demarais from his bed, nor did they attempt to get one,” said Beth Brenneman, Legal Director of the ACLU of Montana. “Our state and federal constitutions protect us from this sort of unreasonable intrusion into our homes — or in this case, our bedrooms — in the middle of the night.”

“With regard to Mrs. Demarais,” she added, “the police officers’ actions are even harder to understand. Mrs. Demarais still does not believe that this happened to her, and she has been changed by the encounter.”

Weeks after the charges were dropped against Lawrence Demarais, one of the same Laurel police officers stopped his car without giving a reason for doing so. The officer questioned him and his friends, searched the car and, although he found nothing in the car and issued no tickets, he told Demarais to get out of town and escorted him to the city limits.

Demarais, a dark skinned man, is an American citizen of French Canadian lineage.

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