Don Kerr, the former New Paltz school board president, is back in court — but this time by choice. Kerr is suing police Chief Joseph Snyder and Detective Sgt. Robert Lucchesi, along with two U.S. Postal Inspection Service agents, over his Nov. 4, 2011 marijuana arrest.
“It is impossible to exaggerate the damage that was done by this false and reckless arrest — damage to my reputation, damage to my family, loss of my elected office and losses at my New Paltz-based business,” he said.
New Paltz Police Department officers arrested Kerr 15 months ago after he signed for a package containing 8 pounds of pot, with an estimated street value of $32,000. In April 2012, an Ulster County Grand Jury reviewed the case and dropped the felony drug possession charge.
Kerr has always maintained his innocence, and in September his lawyer filed a lawsuit with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York alleging that the cops and the feds violated his Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable search and seizure.
The package Kerr signed for was addressed to Shawn Mulligan and went to 183 Main Street, which houses Kerr’s office, other offices and some upstairs apartments, according to court documents filed for the lawsuit.
“As he’s done on prior occasions when the addressee of such a delivery was not present or available, plaintiff signed for the delivery of said package without determining whose package it was, expecting to deliver it to the addressee, assuming this was not him,” the lawsuit reads.
The suit also alleges that police handcuffed Kerr before he could either deliver the package to its rightful owner or do anything to confirm the suspicions.
According to Kerr’s version of events, Chief Snyder and Lucchesi confiscated his business laptop, which “contained years of contacts, e-mails, invoices, signed agreements and other valuable and important documents.” Police didn’t give that computer back until June 1, 2012 — months after the felony drug charge was dropped — which lost him $60,000 in business revenue, Kerr’s complaint says.
The court filing also gives insight into how and why Kerr left the school board. Kerr resigned from the New Paltz Board of Education shortly after news of his arrest broke, saying he didn’t want the focus to be on him. But it seems the idea was not his.
“Despite his innocence, the mere fact that plaintiff was arrested for suspected possession of a large quantity of marihuana made untenable his continued service either as president of the Board or Education or as a member,” the lawsuit says. “Indeed, the very same trustees who had twice elected plaintiff as school board president advised him to immediately resign, citing his arrest as the sole basis for that request.”
Case law on the Fourth Amendment throughout American history has offered victories for both people accused of crimes and for law enforcement. For instance, people accused of crimes cannot be convicted with evidence illegally obtained without warrant. However, a drug case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 broadened the idea of probable cause, allowing police to enter a private property without a warrant in some cases to ensure evidence isn’t being destroyed.
Michael Sussman, the attorney representing Kerr, is using lack of probable cause as a legal argument in this case. The lawyer’s argument hinges on the idea that New Paltz Police Department officers didn’t know what was in the package until after the arrest.
“Defendants only learned the content of the package after detaining plaintiff when they brought a dog to the New Paltz police station and the dog identified the contents of the package as marihuana,” it reads. “Thus, at the time they arrested and detained plaintiff, each defendant did not know that anything illegal was in the package and lacked arguable probable cause to take any law enforcement action against plaintiff.”
The lawsuit also notes that, after the arrest at the office, police left Kerr handcuffed to a bench at the New Paltz Police Department for several hours.
According to the Police Department press release that announced the arrest back in 2011, police obtained a warrant to open the package after detaining their suspect and after the police dog ID’d the box as containing weed.
New Paltz Police Department officials and a lawyer representing the police chief and detective sergeant did not return phone calls requesting information for this story as of press time. However, local police have filed a counter claim with the court to defend their actions.
Lawyers for both sides are busying gathering evidence during the discovery period of the case. A discovery hearing between the legal teams and the judge is set for August.
Previously, after the charge had been dropped, Kerr had told press he thought police officers working the case had been professional and courteous.
“Nothing is personal here,” Kerr said last week, referring to why he filed the lawsuit. “There is a process to follow and I will follow it. I look forward to the end of this painful saga.”