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Federal Court Orders Missouri Police to Answer Questions, Produce Documents in False Arrest Lawsuit

On April 10, 2014, United States District Court Judge Carol E. Jackson, sitting in the Eastern District of Missouri, issued an order requiring the police defendants in a false arrest civil rights lawsuit to answer several questions and produce numerous documents it had previously refused to divulge during the discovery process.

The order came on a motion to compel brought by Russell Whitley, in a lawsuit against three University City, Missouri, police officers -- Jennifer McClain, Carl Coleman, and Timothy Tayon -- claiming that the officers violated his rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments when they illegally arrested him and searched his vehicle in August 2012. Whitley also asserted state law claims of false imprisonment and malicious prosecution.

Originally filed in state court, the case was removed to federal court when Whitley instituted discovery, including submitting detailed questions (or interrogatories) and requests for production of documents to the officers and University City.

The officer defendants refused to answer numerous questions, including, for example, their dates of birth, claiming that information was irrelevant. But the court overruled that objection and ordered the officers to answer, agreeing with Whitley that the dates of birth were necessary for Whitley to conduct independent background checks which may lead to evidence regarding prior arrests, convictions, and/or prior lawsuits.

Another interrogatory the officers refused to answer was a question that asked why they stopped, questioned, and detained the plaintiff. The officers claimed that the question was overbroad, but the court ordered them to answer, ruling it was a "reasonably tailored question."

The court also ordered defendants to provide information as to their net worth and personal assets. The officers had objected, claiming this was a "fishing expedition, harassing, and contrary to Missouri law." The court, however, ruled that the information was relevant in a case where punitive damages are requested and ordered the officers to answer. The court also said the case is now in federal court and thus federal law, and not Missouri law, applies.

The court did agree with the officers' refusal to answer three of Whitley's questions. One dealt with prior lawsuits in which the officers objected but still went on to answer that they have not been previously sued for illegal search and seizure. The court held that only prior lawsuit relating to illegal searched and seizures were "relevant" and upheld the officers' answer. The court also ruled overbroad and vague a question that asked the officers to "state the facts of what occurred" on the day in question. That could "include each time he scratched his nose," the court said in agreeing with the officers' refusal to answer.

The court finally upheld an answer of "None" to a request for all disciplinary actions taken against the officers for misconduct throughout their careers. As phrased, the court ruled, the question was overbroad.

The court gave the officers 15 days from the date of the order to answer the interrogatories and requests for production in which the court overruled their objections. See Whitley v. McClain, et al., No. 4:13-CV-994 (CEJ) (U.S.D.C. E.D. Mo.), April 10, 2014.

Related legal case

Whitley v. McClain