There are a lot of tragedies in life. But sometimes there are incidents that, in the grand scheme of things may seem relatively minor because they do not involve wars or things like that, but still provoke revulsion because they are examples of people treating other cruelly for no obvious reason when simpler, more humane options are available. And in this class are the actions of petty officials who abuse people because they think they can do so with impunity because the weight of authority is behind them. There are many examples of this, as we have seen in the behavior of the TSA personnel at airports, the Customs and Border Protection agents at borders, and of course the security personnel working for United Airlines who dragged a passenger off the plane.
I came across another story of Norman Conley, a special agent and criminal investigator for NASA, who treated Joann Davis, the elderly widow of a NASA contract employee, with unbelievable cruelty for no reason other than to act tough, even forcing her to stand in a parking lot for up to two hours and not letting her use a restroom so that she ended up urinating in her pants. When she sued him in federal court for his abusive behavior, he claimed that he had qualified immunity from prosecution because of his official status as a federal agent. The US District Court judge denied his claim and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals also rejected his defense and said that she had the right to pursue her case against him because her detention was “unreasonably prolonged and degrading”.
The facts of the case are quite simple. Davis and her late husband Robert had worked for Rockwell, a company that contracts with NASA. Apparently astronaut Neil Armstrong, in recognition of Robert’s services, had given him as gifts two paperweights, one that contained a rice-grain sized piece of moon rock and another that contained a tiny piece of the Apollo 11 heat shield. Robert died in 1986 and Davis married again but in 2011 ran into financial difficulties because her son required expensive medical care involving 20 surgeries and she also had to take care of her grandchildren when her daughter died.
She wondered if she could rise some money by selling the paperweights but being a law-abiding person, contacted NASA to make sure that it was legal to do so and also to see if they could help her find a buyer. Her request ended up with Conley and he seemed to have decided that he was dealing with Al Capone. He contacted her posing as a broker named “Jeff” who worked with NASA and had been contacted by them and said that he would help her sell the paperweights. He arranged to meet her and her husband at a Denny’s restaurant. It should be noted that Davis is 74 years old and was just 4’11” tall and her husband is 70, but to combat the threat they posed, “Jeff” brought with him three armed federal agents and three Riverside County Sheriff’s personnel who remained incognito.
The Appeals Court’s opinion is well worth reading because of its succinct account of what happened next.
Once Davis, Cilley, and “Jeff” were seated in a booth inside the restaurant and exchanged pleasantries, Davis placed the paperweights on the table. “Jeff” said he thought the heat shield was worth about $2,000. Shortly thereafter, Conley announced himself as a “special agent,” and another officer’s hand reached over Davis, grabbed her hand, and took the moon rock paperweight. Simultaneously, a different officer grabbed Cilley by the back of the neck and restrained him by holding his arm behind his back in a bent-over position. Then, an officer grabbed Davis by the arm, pulling her from the booth. At this time, Davis claims that she felt like she was beginning to lose control of her bladder. One of the officers took her purse. Both Cilley and Davis were compliant. Four officers escorted them to the restaurant parking lot for questioning after patting them down to ensure that neither was armed. At some point before the escort, Conley left the restaurant and went to the parking lot.
Davis claims that she told officers twice during the escort that she needed to use the restroom, but that they did not answer and continued walking her toward an SUV where Conley was waiting. Davis subsequently urinated in her clothing. Although their accounts differ in some respects, Conley and Davis agree that he knew she was wearing urine- soaked pants as he interrogated her in the restaurant parking lot. Davis claims that she was not allowed an opportunity to clean herself or change her clothing, despite communicating to Conley several times that she was “very uncomfortable.”
So this gang of armed federal and local officials forced a 74-year old grandmother to urinate on herself. After they finally let David and Cilley go, Conley later opened a full investigation into her case but the US Attorney in Florida declined to prosecute her. Then she sued and Conley, like so many abusers, claimed that he had immunity because he was just doing his job. The Appeals Court judges were having none of it, saying that he had gone well beyond what was necessary, and their conclusion was withering.
The remaining circumstances leading up to the sting operation further support our conclusion that Conley’s detention of Davis was unreasonable. Based on the conversations between Davis and “Jeff,” Conley knew that Davis wanted to sell the paperweights because she was experiencing financial hardship, particularly in light of her adult son’s medical condition. He also knew that she believed the paperweights were gifts to her late husband—a belief bolstered by the fact that the artifacts were each encased in a lucite globe, a common gift for honoring a person’s service or accomplishments—and that she was thus in legal possession of them. Finally, he knew that she was elderly, that she intended to sell the paperweights legally, and that she initiated contact with NASA for assistance in doing so. Despite all of this knowledge, Conley did not inform Davis that her possession of the paperweights was illegal or ask her to surrender them to NASA. Instead, he organized a sting operation involving six armed officers to forcibly seize a lucite paperweight containing a moon rock the size of a rice grain from an elderly grandmother.
I do not why this story enrages me so much except that stories of people using their office to abuse innocent and defenseless people because they think they can and have immunity just do. I think that it is the detail of this little, elderly woman being forced to urinate on herself in a public place that put me over the edge. One can imagine how humiliating that must have been for her. But that is the motivation of these bureaucratic thugs isn’t it, to humiliate those whom they think do not have the power to fight back?
I hope that Davis wins her court case and the judge and jury impose a harsh enough punishment on Conley that will deter other would-be tough guys from imitating him.