The city of Manchester, New Hampshire and two of its police officers are facing a lawsuit for more than a million dollars after arresting a man for audio-recording the officers as they searched his home.
Alfredo Valentin, 43, was arrested on March 3 after police conducted a no-knock raid on his home in search of drugs that belonged to a tenant and was later fired from his job because of the arrest, according to the lawsuit.
Valentin was never charged with any drug crimes and, according to the lawsuit, was not aware that there were any drugs in his home.
Police were investigating Christopher Chapman, whom they suspected of selling heroin, and were able to arrest him outside of Hillsborough County Superior Court.
Despite already having the man in custody, the department sent a SWAT team to break into Valentin’s home, “firing incendiary devices through the property’s windows, kicking in the doors, and entering the property SWAT-style with semi-automatic weapons—damaging property, terrifying the two women who were still in the house, and creating an unjustifiable risk of accidental death or injury,” according to the lawsuit (see below for pictures of the damage).
The police department’s website claims that its SWAT team is only used in special circumstances like “the execution of high risk narcotics search warrants,” but the department’s press release about the raid on Valentin’s home make no reference to weapons or other factors that would have justified the violent and destructive tactics.
Valentin had surveillance cameras installed in his home that likely captured video of the raid, but they were seized by police.
Valentin was at work at the time of the raid, but went home after receiving a call from his neighbor, who said his dog had gotten loose.
After seeing vehicles parked in his driveway and evidence of forced entry to his home, Valentin confronted the intruders. One of them told Valentin he was a police officer, but refused to identify himself.
Valentin asked to speak to a supervisor and was approached by Sergeant Christopher Sanders, who said he had a search warrant but refused to show it. Sanders told Valentin to come back in an hour.
Valentin returned an hour later and used his smartphone to audio record. He was approached by Sanders and Sergeant Brian LeVeille, who eventually showed him the warrant but then arrested him for wiretapping after he started walking away. Both sergeants are named in the lawsuit as defendants.
A third man was later arrested by the Massachusetts State Police in Lawrence, Massachusetts as part of the drug investigation.
Brandon Ross, Valentin’s attorney, said that while he is cognizant of the heroin problem in New England, it doesn’t justify police mistreating members of the public.
“You have this war on drugs that’s just going and going and failing completely. And what you do about that is a policy question that I can’t answer, but peoples’ basic liberties and constitutional rights should not be casualties in that war,” he said.
Ross said he convinced the police to drop the wiretapping case, but prosecutors later decided to bring it before a grand jury and were able to obtain an indictment.
“My confidence in him not being convicted is a hundred percent,” Ross said. “They did this to stall everything.”
Ross said the police department still hasn’t returned Valentin’s phone and has refused to provide him with the police report and any other evidence, telling him that doing so would interfere with their case against Chapman.
“They will not give anything up yet,” Ross said. “That’s what makes me so focused on the case is because they’re just not cooperating in a very unusual way.”
Ross said that Valentin’s arrest cost him his job as an accounts payable manager at Longchamps Electric, Inc., where he had worked for 11 years. Ross also said Valentin’s termination meant he lost his health insurance, leaving him unable to pay for medication to treat his chronic asthma and diabetes.
Ross said part of the reason Valentin was fired was a press release issued by the police department which he said insinuated Valentin was involved in a drug ring. The press release, itself titled “Multi-agency investigation leads to 3 arrests,” led to news stories with headlines like “300 grams of heroin seized, 3 people arrested during search.”
“There were worse ones, but I asked the publishers to remove them with threats of litigation. A television news station actually reported, in print and on air, that Valentin was arrested with the heroin and money in his possession. Not surprisingly, they blamed the press release as being misleading. I have copies of those articles, but I can’t bring publicity to them by sharing them,” Ross said.
Ross previously helped overturn the felony wiretapping conviction of Cop Block founder Ademo Freeman, who surreptitiously recorded phone calls with Manchester police and public school officials about a video of a police officer attacking a student. Freeman later pled guilty to misdemeanor wiretapping after the charges were re-filed.
“Standing up for the little guy is something I enjoy doing,” Ross said.
Ross said he’d ultimately like to see the state’s wiretapping statute changed to a one-party consent law, which would make police and prosecutors less likely to abuse it.
It would probably also help if the mainstream media did a better job of standing up for the First Amendment instead of uncritically regurgitating police press releases. A number of news outlets including the Union Leader, New Hampshire’s largest newspaper, reprinted the police department’s false claim that it’s illegal to record police without their consent without challenging it.
Multiple court cases have already established that recording the police is protected by the First Amendment in New Hampshire. The 2011 Glik decision, which was related to Massachusetts which is in the same federal jurisdiction as New Hampshire, found that recording police and other government officials is a clearly established right. The 2014 Gericke decision, which involved the Weare, New Hampshire Police Department, also found that recording the police is protected.
The Manchester Police Department and Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas did not respond to requests for comment.
UPDATE/CORRECTION: Updated the piece with an additional quote from Brandon Ross about misleading media coverage of Valentin’s arrest. Also corrected the piece, per Ross, to say that the police eventually showed Valentin the search warrant.