State of Emergency conditions and evacuations seem to have become increasingly more common in this state over the years. Floods, hurricanes, and other extreme weather conditions can force a whole neighborhood to relocate for a few weeks. At times the evacuation protocols remain voluntary, meaning you may stay in your home at your own risk. Residents choose to weather the storm for a number of reasons, be it to avoid an expensive relocation or to protect their property from looters. Whatever the reason you stay behind, be aware that a State of Emergency prompts law enforcement to be more vigilant in their safety patrols.
One late night Neil Rabeaux was walking down the side of the road in Butte La Rose when he was stopped by police officers. There was a State of Emergency in effect at the time, and many residents had voluntarily evacuated the town due to a looming flood warning. While speaking with Rabeaux, officers noted Rabeaux appeared intoxicated and that his waistband contained a handgun. A radio call to dispatch erroneously indicated Rabeaux had multiple felony convictions on his record. They arrested Rabeaux for Possession of a Firearm by a Felon and Illegal Carrying of a Firearm. Officers later discovered Rabeaux did not have a record, and dropped all charges. Rabeaux then filed a lawsuit against the two officers for wrongful arrest and false imprisonment.
The officers filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming immunity under the Louisiana Homeland Security and Emergency Assistance and Disaster Act (“the Act”). They asserted that since there was a State of Emergency at the time, their actions were immune from suit. The Trial Court agreed and dismissed the lawsuit. Rabeaux appealed.
Summary judgment is a motion that allows the court to decide for one party without a trial. The court evaluates the pleadings, and any evidence gathered thus far, such as affidavits and depositions, and determines that there is no genuine issue of fact between the parties. See La. C.C.P. art. 966. Rabeaux’s appeal stated that the Trial Court erred in granting the motion, that there were genuine issues of material fact to be tried, and that the officers acted criminally, fraudulently, and maliciously.
The Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal heard the case. It relied heavily on the text of the Act, particularly section La. R.S. 29:735(A)(1), to come to its decision. This section addresses the conduct of emergency personnel, and essentially absolves such personnel of any civil liability unless they engaged in willful misconduct. The officers presented evidence that there was indeed a State of Emergency at the time of Rabeaux’s arrest. Rabeaux argued that not all of the officers’ “uncontested facts” were uncontested, and that one deputy made false statements which amounted to willful misconduct. The parties’ stories differed on whether Rabeaux had been seen exiting the woods, whether the officers smelled alcohol on his breath, and a few other issues. Notwithstanding, the Appellate Court determined that the major issues in the case were undisputed, namely whether Rabeaux was armed at the time he was stopped and whether the officers were conducting a public safety patrol in accordance with the emergency response effort. The summary judgment was upheld.
Rabeaux arguably suffered some embarrassment and inconvenience during his brief incarceration. But these discomforts pale in comparison to the damage that could have been done had he been a looter. Police acting in a State of Emergency situation have more leeway when protecting the persons and property of an evacuated neighborhood. If you feel you have been wronged to the point that you are considering a lawsuit, make sure you consult a good attorney to assure you have a strong case before pressing onward. It may save you a great deal of time and money.
Additional Sources: NEIL RABEAUX v. RONALD J. THERIOT, SHERIFF, ET AL.
Written by Berniard Law Firm Blog Writer: Matt Keen
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