Hobbsan suing after false arrest claim
Lawsuit names drug task force, Lea commission, City of Hobbs and 10 law officers
A Hobbs man is suing the Lea County Drug Task Force, Lea County Board of Commissioners, City of Hobbs and 10 law enforcement officers in federal court with a lawsuit alleging he was the victim of a false arrest for drug trafficking and harassment.
The 22-page lawsuit was filed last Friday into U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico on behalf of Kenneth Johnson and seeks judgment against numerous defendants, along with fees, compensatory damages and punitive damages. It alleges Johnson was the victim of unreasonable search and seizure, a false arrest in September 2015 and that his Fourth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated.
The lawsuit names the following as defendants: law enforcement officers (still active or retired) Rodney Porter, Byron Wester, Stan Jordan, Tony Budrow, John Barrientes, Sean Roach, Chris Leyva, George LeBreton, Jeremy Kirk, Scott Russell; the City of Hobbs, Board of County Commissioners for Lea County and the Lea County Drug Task Force.
“Plaintiff Kenneth Johnson, an African-American citizen of Hobbs, New Mexico, was the victim of a corrupt effort by the Lea County Drug Task Force (“LCDTF”) defendants, led by Defendants Porter and Wester, to falsely arrest him on drug charges and then send him to prison through a malicious prosecution, an effort that failed when a Lea County jury found Plaintiff not guilty in September 2016,” the lawsuit complaint states.
Johnson’s lawsuit noted different lawsuits filed in previous years against the Hobbs Police Department, as well as a lawsuit filed in October 2017 by three ex-police officers who alleged racial discrimination. It gives background information surrounding Johnson’s arrest on Sept. 11, 2015 and alleges Johnson was harassed in April 2017 when two Hobbs police officers “subjected him to an unlawful seizure and search.” It also asserts conduct by “at least some” of the defendants involved racial animus.
The first incident involving Johnson detailed in the lawsuit occurred in May 2014 when two defendants, Porter and Budrow, “falsely claimed” a confidential informant purchased cocaine from Johnson at an East Broadway apartment and the search warrant claimed it was Johnson’s residence, but he didn’t live there, had never lived there or ever sold drugs there. It was Johnson’s friend’s residence and no criminal charges resulted from the search warrant.
A second incident occurred in September 2015, when Porter got a search warrant on Sept. 10 for an East Broadway apartment where Johnson’s mother and two children lived. The lawsuit claims a confidential informant had purchased drugs from Johnson, which Porter said was ecstasy and it was not sent for testing at a crime lab. The next day, Johnson was pulled over by Wester, told he was a suspect in a hit-and-run accident in Hobbs and told to exit his car.
“In fact, no such incident had occurred and Defendant Wester lied to Plaintiff as a pretext to detain him prior to the execution of the search warrant at his mother’s apartment,” the lawsuit states.
It continues that Wester handcuffed Johnson and searched his car without a warrant and conducted a pat-down on Johnson. No contraband or weapons were found, according to the lawsuit. Later, LCDTF agents executed a search warrant on the “very small” apartment and a K-9 officer did not detect any drugs.
“After learning that the K-9 had not detected any drugs, Defendants Porter and Wester, along with one or two other defendants, went back inside the apartment,” it alleges. “Once inside, Defendant Porter and Defendant Wester conspired to and did place a plastic bag of methamphetamine inside a record player that belong to Plaintiff’s mother. Defendant Wester ‘found’ the drugs.”
Johnson was arrested on a trafficking methamphetamine charge, taken to jail and remained there 11 days since he was unable to make a high bond. He also was unable to go to work because he was in jail and was terminated around Sept. 15, 2015 for failing to report. The two bags of methamphetamine were sent for testing and DNA results showed it more likely that DNA came from a Caucasian person than from an African-American, which was not included as evidence at trial.
In August 2016, Johnson went to trial on the trafficking charge, which was dismissed by the district court after the prosecution made its case. A jury later found Johnson not guilty of possession of methamphetamine.
A third incident, as detailed in the lawsuit, took place in April 2017 when Johnson was stopped by a Hobbs police officer for a broken taillight and was also cited for a recently suspended license. During the stop, Russell requested Kirk arrive with a K-9 and asked for an “open-air” narcotics search. Police said the dog alerted for the presence of narcotics and obtained a search warrant, which did not reveal any contraband.
While being detained, Kirk allegedly told Johnson to empty his pockets, take off his shoes and socks, and also raise his shirt. Johnson’s passenger was also told to empty his pockets.
“Defendant Russell had no objective, specific, articulable evidence that there were drugs in the car or on Plaintiff and thus had no lawful basis to detain Plaintiff and the vehicle beyond the time it would have reasonably taken to write the warning and citation,” it asserted.
The lawsuit states Johnson suffered a “significant loss” of liberty and violation of his constitutional rights and loss of income. It adds that he suffered and continues to suffer from emotional pain, distress, humiliation, embarrassment and physical pain. The lawsuit also asks for punitive damages against the individual defendants.
Santa Fe attorney Richard Rosenstock, who is one of Johnson’s attorneys, said the lawsuit alleges Johnson was the subject of an unlawful arrest and “basically framed” for methamphetamine possession.
“We would like to see the drug task force in a more lawful and responsible manner,” Rosenstock said later. “Mr. (Daniel) Yohalem, my co-counsel and I, have litigated cases back in the mid-2000s — 2005, 2006, maybe a little bit later — against the drug task force. There were different individuals involved at the time, but it was similar kind of problems. It involved strip searches and unlawful arrests … That’s one of our goals, is to try to bring some responsibility and what not to the way that task force is operated.”
Rosenstock said the next step after filing the lawsuit is to serve summons with the complaint to the defendants and they’ll file a response. Afterwards, a judge will set up a schedule for discovery in the lawsuit and “go from there.”
The News-Sun reached out this week to City of Hobbs communications director Meghan Mooney, Lea County attorney John Caldwell and Albuquerque attorney Luis Robles for response to the federal lawsuit.
“Due to this request concerning pending litigation, the City of Hobbs and Hobbs Police Department are not able to offer a comment,” Mooney stated. “We will respond to the filing pursuant to our legal obligations.”
Caldwell likewise declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing county policy on pending litigation. Meanwhile, Robles confirmed Tuesday he is representing the Lea County Drug Task Force, board of commissioners and sheriff’s office personnel named in the lawsuit.
“It’s unfortunate that Mr. Johnson has brought these allegations against the sheriff and the members of the task force,” he said. “The members of the task force and the sheriff, who was the commander at that time, acted lawfully and all of their actions were above board. So, it really is terribly unfortunate Mr. Johnson has decided to make these scurrilous accusations against them.”