CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. —A federal judge has given attorneys for The Rutherford Institute the go-ahead to proceed with a lawsuit against Virginia police after a “welfare check” on a 58-year-old man resulted in a two-hour, SWAT team-style raid on the man’s truck and a 72-hour mental health hold. After a hearing in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, Judge Glen Conrad refused a request by law enforcement officials to dismiss the lawsuit brought by The Rutherford Institute on behalf of Benjamin Burruss.
In asking that the case be dismissed, government officials had argued that police officers have qualified immunity, that they acted in “good faith” and did not violate clearly established rules that govern mental health seizures. However, in pushing back against the government’s claims, Rutherford Institute attorneys pointed out that any reasonable officer would know that they cannot seize a person for an involuntary mental health evaluation unless they have some evidence that the person poses a danger to himself or others. As the November 2015 lawsuit makes clear, police acknowledged that they had no legal basis nor probable cause for detaining Burruss, given that he had not threatened to harm anyone and was not mentally ill. During the standoff, a heavily armed police tactical team confronted Burruss, surrounded his truck, deployed a “stinger” device behind the rear tires, launched a flash grenade, smashed the side window in order to drag him from the truck, handcuffed and searched him, and transported him to a local hospital for a psychiatric evaluation and mental health hold.
“This is just one more example of how a relatively benign situation (a routine welfare check) gets escalated into something far more violent and dangerous through the use of militarized police, armed to the teeth and trained to react combatively,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “The unnecessary use of force by police officers in response to a situation that should have—and could have—been handled non-confrontationally did not, in this instance, result in a loss of life, but that is small consolation to those who have learned to tread cautiously in their interactions with police.”
Attorney Michael Winget-Hernandez is assisting The Rutherford Institute with the lawsuit, which charges government officials with violating the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments as well as state law.
According to the complaint, on Nov. 21, 2013, Albemarle County police officers were asked to conduct a “welfare check” on Benjamin Burruss by his employer. Police confronted Burruss as he was leaving the Comfort Inn and preparing to leave for a hunting trip to Montana. Burruss informed officers that he was fine, had no plans to hurt anyone, and just needed time to think through things, hence the trip to Montana. For two hours, officers persisted in asking Burruss to exit his truck and speak with them, with Burruss continuing to reiterate that he had no intention of harming himself or others and just wanted to be left alone and allowed to go on his hunting trip. During this time, police deployed a “stinger” device behind Burruss’s truck. Police also surrounded Burruss’s truck with their squad cars, blocking his exit. The officer speaking with Burruss informed the other officers that they had no reason to hold Burruss because he had not threatened to harm anyone and he was not mentally ill. Nevertheless, a tactical team of heavily-armed police launched a flash grenade at Burruss’ truck, smashed the driver-side window, dragged Burruss out by his arms, handcuffed, searched and arrested him. Burruss was forced to undergo a psychiatric evaluation and locked up under a mental health hold.