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November 27, 2002

Chambers County hit with civil rights lawsuit

From: Baytown Sun, TX - 27 Nov 2002

By Matthew Cook
The Baytown Sun

GALVESTON — An attorney representing Vernon Coates filed a civil rights violation lawsuit Tuesday in U.S. District Court against Chambers County, Chambers County Sheriff Monroe Kreuzer and former sheriff’s deputies.

“This is an action … against various sheriff deputies of the Chambers County Sheriff’s Department who unlawfully harassed, abused, assaulted and arrested (Coates) and violated his constitutional and civil rights and conspired with others to do the same,” reads Coates’ lawsuit, filed Tuesday by attorney Ron Rainey.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas - Galveston Division.

In the lawsuit, Rainey alleges that deputies engaged in excessive force, malicious prosecution, harassment, intimidation and cruel and unusual punishment.

This is the third lawsuit to be filed against Chambers County and Chambers County Sheriff Monroe Kreuzer this year. In October, two former sheriff’s deputies filed wrongful termination lawsuits, one in federal court, the other in a Galveston County District Court.

Chambers County Commissioner Buddy Irby said the county expected the lawsuit to be filed.

“We kind of knew it was coming,” he said. “We anticipated it. We’ll just have to wait until we see the content of it and deal with it.”

Irby recently asked Kreuzer to resign as a result of the various lawsuits being filed against the county and the sheriff’s department. Irby said Kreuzer declined to step down.

Attempts to contact Kreuzer for comment Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Coates, who was unable to be reached for comment, has been at the center of controversy for the Chambers County Sheriff’s Department this year. In July, two deputies, John Joslin and Brett Hulsey, were indicted for allegedly arresting Coates on false drunken driving charges. In August, then-Chief Deputy Dearl Hardy was indicted for allegedly ordering Coates’ arrest.

“The facts will support what Mr. Coates has said all along,” Rainey said. “They’re even more egregious than one could imagine.”

According to the lawsuit, problems began in February 2001. Coates, who is black, mistakenly thought several deputies were harassing his deaf and mute son. When Coates approached the deputies, the lawsuit alleges he was handcuffed, kicked repeatedly and beaten with a flashlight.

Following this incident, Coates filed a complaint with the FBI. In March, Coates was arrested again, this time for attempted capital murder after police alleged he tried to run over a deputy. Coates was formally charged with aggravated assault.

In September 2001, Coates was arrested by Joslin and Hulsey for allegedly drinking and driving. The lawsuit alleges that in both the March and September arrests, deputies were targeting Coates as retaliation because he complained to the FBI.

All criminal charges against Coates have been dropped.

At the time of his indictment, Joslin said he filed the false arrest charge against Coates at the orders of his superiors, which led to Coates’ charges being dropped and also resulted in indictments against Hardy. Joslin has since filed a federal lawsuit against Chambers County and the sheriff’s department for wrongful termination, claiming whistleblower protection.

In the lawsuit, the defendants are accused of violating Coates’ civil rights by targeting him based on a racial basis. The lawsuit claims that Coates’ rights were violated under the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments.

“The Defendants’ malicious disregard for undisputed and/or clearly established constitutional rights was so severe as to amount to gross negligence or deliberate indifference,” the lawsuit reads. “Defendants’ conduct is so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civil community … .”

The lawsuit accuses Kreuzer and Chambers County of failing to adequately supervise and train the sheriff’s department deputies.

The lawsuit also accuses Kreuzer and Hardy of designating Chambers County’s black communities as “Zero Tolerance Areas.” Deputies were allegedly told not to leave a “Zero Tolerance Area” without an arrest.

Kreuzer said in a July interview that the sheriff’s department was targeting drug dealers and was not making arrests based on color.

According to the 2000 census, Chambers County has a total population of 26,031, with 81.9 percent white and 9.8 percent black. Slightly more than 20 percent of the Anahuac population of 2,210 are black.

According to statistics from the Chambers County Sheriff’s Department, 30 percent of the department’s 1,507 arrests in 2001 were black.

Coates is seeking an unspecified amount of damages, including attorney’s fees, hospital bills and compensation for emotional distress. Rainey said the exact amount of damages will be determined by a jury.

The lawsuit names as defendants Chambers County, Kreuzer, Hardy, Frank Saye, David Beck, Paul Tomplait, Kevin Laird, Larry Fechner, Brett Hulsey and John Joslin. All individuals are being sued as individuals and in their official capacity as Chambers County sheriff’s deputies.

Ed Lieck, who represented Coates as a defense attorney, said he hoped this experience would not repeat itself.

“I hope everything works out for Vernon and pray that nothing like this ever happens again to a Chambers County resident,” Lieck said.

Attorney Greg Cagle, who represents Hardy and Beck, said he had not yet reviewed the lawsuit.

“I can’t comment on the case without seeing it,” Cagle said.

Attorney Chris Tritico, who represents Joslin, said he wasn’t surprised by the lawsuit.

“Vernon’s got to look after his own interests,” he said. “ I’m not surprised he has sued Chambers County and the sheriff’s department.”

Tritico said he did not expect Joslin to be held liable in the matter.

“Joslin is really the hero of the Coates matter,” he said. “If it weren’t for John Joslin, (Coates) would have been brought to trial on those charges. When the jury in the Coates civil case hears what John Joslin did by coming forward, they’re going to find that he’s not liable.”

© 2002 Baytown Sun. All rights reserved.