Evansville police officers investigating Internet posts threatening law enforcement officials did not look into all of the user names associated with an IP address to see who may have made the threats before launching a SWAT raid at the house in June 2012.
That was revealed in documents filed Thursday in U.S. District Court at Evansville in a lawsuit filed by the woman whose home was targeted.
The lawsuit by homeowner Louise Milan alleges police violated her constitutional rights when a SWAT team tossed flash grenades into her home and forced its way inside to serve a search warrant on June 21, 2012.
The officers were looking for evidence of who had made the anonymous Internet posts to a message board threatening the police department and Chief Billy Bolin.
But a string of emails between police and a manager at the Topix.com message board show that before the raid police subpoenaed records only for the three user names attached to the threats. The email exchange is included in documents filed by Milan’s attorneys in federal court.
When officers discovered the posts all came from the same IP address, they subpoenaed records from a cable company Internet provider that identified Milan and her street address as the subscriber.
However, in a letter also included in the court filings, Internet provider Time Warner Cable warned police that, “We do not make any representations as to the identity of the individual who actually used the above IP address on the time and date in question.”
It was a caution that the Topix manager repeated to police a day after the raid — which resulted in no arrests — when an officer sought additional user names originating from the IP address.
“Multiple people could be using that same IP address so that may lead you to a different, unrelated user,” wrote Do Kim, Topix LLC community manager.
Police found no evidence about who had made the threatening posts but only after damaging Milan’s house, handcuffing her and her adopted daughter and seizing their computers, according to the lawsuit.
Law enforcement officers were able only to tell as a result of the search that, while there was an open wireless Internet connection in the home, the threatening posts were not made from inside the house, according to attorneys for the city who are seeking a favorable judgment.
But in a 50-page response filed late Thursday by Milan’s attorney Kyle Biesecker laid out a case for why he believes the case should be decided by a jury.
Biesecker said Friday that city officials have refused to settle the lawsuit out of court. The next step in the lawsuit will be for a federal judge to rule on the city’s motion for summary judgment.
The city is arguing police are protected by a legal principle known as qualified immunity in which the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that “government officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded from liability for civil damages” as long as their conduct does not “clearly” violate established “statutory or constitutional rights.” However, only when the conduct does not “clearly” violate a person’s legal or constitutional rights.
Milan’s lawsuit alleges police violated her constitutional right against unreasonable search and seizure by breaking into the home and seizing an Internet router and computer equipment. She also claimed police were negligent and caused her emotional distress.
According to the lawsuit: “The officers smashed Milan’s window and storm door and threw in two flash-bang grenades that created property damage in addition to the destroyed window and storm door. The officers used flash-bang grenades despite the fact that [there] were no threatening suspects visible. Milan and her daughter were ordered on to the floor at gunpoint, handcuffed and paraded in front of their neighbors into police vehicles. Both were detained and questioned by the officers.”
Biesecker wrote in the response to the city’s motion for summary judgment that detectives testified they knew people could log onto and use other people’s open Internet connections. He also wrote that a detective gave sworn testimony that he drove down Milan’s street on the day of the SWAT raid to check for open Internet connections and discovered one while he was in front of Milan’s house.
In arguing for summary judgment last month, city attorneys acknowledged, “further investigation was necessary to determine if the person posting the threats from the IP (Internet provider) address was the actual residence subscriber to the IP address or someone else.”
However, city attorneys also argue that searching the home to examine the Internet router and computers was necessary to do that, and after assessing the safety risk it was determined that using the SWAT team was the way to do that.
The FBI later arrested Derrick Murray, a suspected local gang leader who lived nearby in his mother’s house. He admitted in federal court he used his smartphone to connect to the wireless Internet router in Milan’s house and post the threats. Access to the router connection was not protected by a password.
The city’s motion noted at the time of the raid at 616 E. Powell Ave., Murray was seen watching it from a porch down the street.
City officials have said the city paid for the damages to Milan’s house caused by the raid and Bolin wrote Milan a letter of apology.