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75-Year-Old Woman, Detained by NASA for Selling a Moon Rock, Can Sue

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

Joann Davis was an elderly widow of an Apollo engineer trying to hawk an extra-terrestrial rock when she wound up in trouble with the space agency. After Davis contacted the agency for help selling the rice-sized rock, in part to cover her son's medical bills, NASA organized a sting, detaining Davis in a Denny's parking lot, and declining to let her use the restroom, even as she wet herself.

Davis sued NASA, for a detention that was "unreasonably prolonged and unnecessarily degrading," in violation of the Fourth Amendment. And that suit can go forward to resolve genuine issues of material fact surrounding the lawfulness of her detention, the Ninth Circuit ruled last Thursday.

The Case of the Moon Rock Paper Weight and the Sting Gone Awry

Davis's is one of the stranger cases to come out of the Ninth Circuit recently, at least so far as the factual background is concerned. Davis and her late husband, Robert, both worked together at North American Rockwell, a NASA contractor. Robert eventually went on to become a manager on the Apollo project.

At some point, Robert obtained two lucite paperweights with what was supposedly a grain-sized moon rock in the center. Family legend says they were gifted by Neil Armstrong himself.

Robert eventually died, Joann remarried, and decades later she fell into financial trouble, as her son became severely ill and she become responsible for him, his children, and his medical bills.

Thus arose the idea to sell the paperweights. After no auction houses showed interest, Davis contacted NASA directly, for help in finding a buyer.

Possessing and selling moon rocks is illegal in most circumstances, as lunar material is the property of the U.S. government. A NASA agent arraigned a sting, agreeing to buy the items from Davis, which Davis had said she wanted to do legally. When the two met at Denny's Davis found herself surrounded and detained. Her interrogation in the Denny's parking lot lasted at least an hour and a half, during which Davis was forced to stand in place in urine-soaked pants, she says.

Davis was eventually released. She was never charged with a crime.

An Unreasonable, Unnecessary Detention

Davis filed a Bivens claim, alleging that the NASA agent, Normal Conley, had wrongfully detained her. Conley lost a motion for summary judgment in the district court and again lost before the Ninth.

Detention may be unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, the Ninth noted, when the seizure is unreasonably prolonged, unnecessarily painful, or needlessly degrading. Conley knew, too, that Davis was "a slight, elderly woman," and that she had "lost control of her bladder" during the search. He knew that she was unarmed, that his search warrant had been fully executed, and that Davis had sought to sell the paperweights legally.

Because the moon rock paperweight had been seized and both Davis and [her husband] had already been searched for other weapons and contraband, Conley had no law enforcement interest in detaining Davis for two hours while she stood wearing urine-soaked pants in a restaurant's parking lot during the lunch rush. This is precisely the type of 'unusual case' involving 'special circumstances' that leads us to conclude that a detention is unreasonable.

Concluding that Davis's detention was "unreasonably long and unnecessarily degrading," the Ninth upheld the district court's ruling. It ended by noting that Davis simply could have been told that the paperweights were illegal and asked to surrender them to NASA. "Instead," the Ninth writes, Conley "organized a sting operation involving six armed officers to forcibly seize a Lucite paperweight containing a moon rock the size of a rice grain from an elderly grandmother."

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