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Unreasonable Search: Drug Theft Violates Civil Rights

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

We’re all aware that a cop can seize drugs from a criminal, but did you know that a cop who steals a dealer’s drugs has conducted an unreasonable search?

That’s the word out of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled on Friday that a police officer violates a suspect’s civil rights when he seizes drugs for personal gain.

Arthur Sease was a Memphis police officer until he was fired by the department in late 2004, after the department learned about Sease’s side gig: stealing drugs.

Sease would arrange for a drug deal using drugs taken in a previous incident and a non-officer contact as the front person. As the deal was occurring, either Sease or one of his co-conspirator officers would arrive at the scene to make a purported arrest, and seize the money and drugs involved in the deal.

The participants would be released, and Sease and his conspirators would split the proceeds without reporting the incidents.

A jury found that Sease was the principal co-conspirator in a plan to acquire money and drugs from drug dealers for his own benefit and convicted Sease on 44 counts, including willful civil rights deprivation.

The prosecution's theory was that the stop, arrest, and search of the dealers violated the dealers' Fourth Amendment rights because officers were not engaging in a bona fide investigation. Sease appealed, arguing that there was no evidence to support convictions predicated on civil rights violations.

Sease argued that it didn't matter why he and the co-conspirators made the stops in their scheme, it only mattered that they had probable cause for the stops.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and upheld Sease's convictions, finding that even if there was probable cause for a stop, a search is unreasonable if a police officer is not engaged in a bona fide investigation.

Here, the court found clear evidence that the Sease was not engaged in bona fide law enforcement activities, but instead acted with a corrupt, personal, and pecuniary interest. Therefore, Sease violated the civil rights of those who were stopped, searched, or had their property seized.

While we think this is an interesting opinion, it seems more useful as guidance for criminal prosecution than as support for a civil rights claim against a shady cop. After all, how many drug dealers or buyers would be willing to report police officers for stealing their drugs? And what kind of damages would they reasonably receive?

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