A judge let stand part of a civil rights lawsuit by a former janitor at Carilion Clinic who claims he was falsely arrested and imprisoned by Carilion police.
While he was held, the man’s suit said, he was coerced into falsely confessing that he set a small fire at work.
U.S. District Judge Frederick Stamp will permit Roger “Stewart” Fuller Jr. to present his allegations of mistreatment by Carilion police to a jury starting June 11, according to a 56-page ruling released Tuesday. If proven to the jury’s satisfaction, Fuller’s account could yield a verdict against Capt. Ron Donelson for false arrest, according to the decision.
However, Carilion’s lawyers successfully persuaded Stamp to release Steve Lugar, Carilion’s chief of police, from the case. Stamp tossed out an allegation that Carilion police intentionally inflicted emotional distress on Fuller. Finally, Carilion was released from allegations that it directly allowed an abuse of police power, the judge ruled.
Fuller’s suit said that on Sept. 14, 2017, he found burned matches and a singed napkin while on duty in a Carilion clinical facility. He reported the discovery to Carilion authorities, gave information to Carilion police and went home after the end of his shift. According to the suit, two plainclothes Carilion officers with badges and guns repeatedly knocked and rang the doorbell at Fuller’s Roanoke County home the next morning, demanded he go with them, drove him to the police station and there conducted an aggressive interrogation behind closed doors, all against his will. Fuller was able to halt the questioning only by falsely confessing that he’d used a match to light the napkin, the suit said. Though not charged, he was put on leave and later fired.
The alleged coercion included police lying to Fuller that his fingerprints were found on the matches, according to court papers filed on behalf of Fuller. Fuller thought to himself in that moment, “I’m not going to get to leave this place if I don’t tell this guy what he wants to hear,” those papers said.
Though he is the son of a retired police officer, Fuller was hamstrung in his encounters with police because of Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, according to the suit. The suit also said police knew at some point of his condition. In Fuller, anxiety brings on shaking, which police took as an indication of guilt, the suit said. Fuller will be seeking compensation for humiliation, distress, sleeplessness, fear and other impacts, the suit said.
The court filing does not seek specific damages.
Carilion police have told the court that Fuller was never arrested, nor in custody, but went willingly from his home to the police department to help them figure out who tried to set fire to the building. He wasn’t touched or handcuffed and he rode in the front seat of the police car to the police office at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, by his own account. Although Fuller claimed he felt trapped once he arrived, police told the court he was free to leave and was told so.
Noting “large differences” between the two accounts of the events, Stamp ruled that certain aspects of the case would need to be decided by a jury.
Donelson supervised the operation assisted by A.D. Janney. Janney is not named as a defendant in the complaint.
Though it is a private, nonprofit organization, Carilion operates a police department. Its officers, like municipal police, must be trained and abide by state and federal constitutions. They may work armed and have full arrest powers. State law limits its jurisdiction to land owned, leased or controlled by Carilion. Roanoke police and Carilion police have signed a cooperation agreement.
The suit attributed the actions of Carilion police to either of two improper motives: Police accosted Fuller without probable cause to believe that a crime had been committed. Or, officers used police powers to investigate what Carilion considered a possible workplace misconduct issue. In addition, the suit pointed out, a portion of the encounter took place off Carilion property and beyond the turf and authority of officers.
Stamp called Lugar’s permitting officers to leave Carilion premises to go to Fuller’s house “a potential violation of Virginia law,” but added that he would not rule formally whether it was.
Stamp also said that, were he to accept Fuller’s account as true, a person under the circumstances might have believed he was not free to leave. Fuller’s account — if proven at trial — could also make the case that police acted unreasonably given that they had neither charged Fuller with a crime nor named him as a suspect, the ruling said.