The abuse inflicted upon Boise resident Brian J. McNelis by the Ada County Sheriff’s Office is infuriatingly commonplace in post-constitutional America. The legal vindication he won last May, following a five-year legal ordeal, was very much out of the ordinary. Following a four-day federal civil trial in which McNelis represented himself, a jury ruled that former Ada County Sheriff’s Deputy Stephen Craig had perjured himself in order to obtain the warrant that led to a January 6, 2010 raid on McNelis’s home.
On the basis of alleged evidence that was never properly booked by the Sheriff’s Office or proven to exist, McNelis was arrested and charged with drug trafficking. Two days later, as he prepared for an emergency shelter care hearing for his high school-age daughter, McNelis was confronted by a deputy (identified as “Officer Rodarte” in court documents), who demanded that he surrender custody of the girl. If he proceeded with the hearing, McNelis was told, he would be arrested for “child endangerment” and “felony injury to a child.”
Forced to accede to this extortion demand, McNelis relinquished custody of his daughter, whom he hasn’t seen since – and who, according to his account, was alienated from him as a result of the spurious and unsubstantiated charges against him. In addition to being ostracized by other family members, McNelis, a commercial painter, lost several very profitable contracts as a result of the felony charges.
In his affidavit requesting a search warrant, Deputy Craig claimed to have received an anonymous tip that there were “a half-dozen” marijuana plants growing outside McNelis’s home. In December 29, 2009, Craig reportedly conducted a “trash pull” outside the residence that yielded no evidence of a crime. A second “pull” allegedly carried out after midnight on the morning of January 6 supposedly turned up an unspecified amount of material he identified as “marijuana trimmings” on the basis of a field test.
“How much stuff was there?” Craig was subsequently asked by internal affairs investigator John Lewis.
“I really don’t know,” Craig replied.
“Did you take any pictures of any of this stuff?” Lewis inquired.
“No, I did not,” Craig admitted.
“You didn’t send it to the ISP [Idaho State Police] forensic lab, correct?” persisted Lewis.
“That’s correct,” Craig responded, explaining that “I felt that there was no need to. It was a small quantity, field test was positive.” For the same reason, Craig continued, he didn’t bother to tell his patrol supervisor about his discovery at the time.
Not only did Craig not bother to document his alleged discovery, he didn’t confirm that the trash through which he had rummaged had actually belonged to McNelis. Among the items he claimed to have found was an unremarkable “white envelope” addressed to Brian McNelis.
“I don’t know if it was junk mail or a bill,” Craig explained to the internal affairs officer. “I didn’t look at it.”
Implausibilities, misrepresentations, and errors abounded in Craig’s affidavit. In describing the trash pull, Craig incorrectly listed BFI as the trash removal company, rather than Allied Waste, and listed the wrong day for garbage removal. He gave the wrong street as McNelis’s address. He misreported the time of the second trash pull, offering a chronology that would have had him working a 20-hour shift.
Most seriously, Craig falsely claimed to have submitted evidence from the trash pull to the Ada County Sheriff’s Office property room on December 30. It wasn’t until nearly a month later – January 20, two weeks after the raid on McNelis’s home – that Craig and his Deputy Jose Del Rio, his comrade in the ACSO’s “ACTION Team” placed evidence of any kind in the property room. Craig later insisted that the original marijuana office had been kept in a safe in the ACTION Team’s office – which would mean, in any case, that the chain of custody had been broken.
During the January 6 search of McNelis’s home, Craig claimed to have seized “grow lights” and a substantial quantity of processed marijuana. None of that evidence was properly accounted for or ever produced.
Roughly a year after the raid on McNelis’s home, Judge Timothy Hansen of Idaho’s Fourth Circuit Court ruled that the search warrant was invalid, which led to dismissal of the charges against McNelis. In a Memorandum and Order issued on April 15, 2011, Judge Hansen found that Deputy Craig had “knowingly, intentionally, or with reckless disregard for the truth” incorporated false statements into his affidavit. Judge Hansen reiterated that finding on August 8 in response to a plaintive motion to reconsider filed by the Ada County Prosecutor’s office.
Judge Hansen’s ruling certified that that Deputy Stephen Craig is a liar. This led to the interview with internal affairs investigator John Lewis, whose highest priority was to save the deceitful deputy’s career, rather than to protect the public or provide redress to Brain McNelis.
As in all exercises of this kind, the officer was informed of his “Garrity” privileges – under which his disclosures could be used only for disciplinary purposes, rather than to build a criminal case. When a mere commoner is interrogated by a police officer, the investigator will often seek to prompt the subject into making damaging admissions, or even confessing to an offense he didn’t commit. Lewis used similar tactics in an effort to elicit self-serving answers from Craig that would help his superiors exonerate him.
“Sir, I’m not here to hang you out to dry,” Lewis assured Craig. “I’m just trying to get the facts and try to make sure that your career is not going to end up in the shambles…. [T]he more than I can come up with and show the prosecutor’s office, the better they’re going to be able to go back to the judge and say, `This guy didn’t lie. He just made some administrative errors in the thing.’”
Not surprisingly, Lewis found that Craig had committed “errors” and omissions, but declined to rule that the detective had submitted a false report. Shortly thereafter, Craig’s boss, former Ada County Sheriff Gary Raney, notified the deputy that he would be suspended “without pay for one day or the equivalent of eight (8) hours” on the following September 30 as punishment for “administrative violations.”
Rather than manning up and accepting that trivial and inadequate punishment, Craig decided to quit.
“This letter is to notify you of my decision to tender my resignation as an Ada County Detective in order to pursue other employment opportunities,” Craig informed Sheriff Raney in a letter dated September 26, 2011.
This allowed Craig to use his accumulated vacation and “compensatory” time to secure a job with another law enforcement agency – Idaho’s Canyon County Sheriff’s Office, where he remains employed today. Just as importantly, by ducking the suspension Craig may have obscured the fact that he is a repeat offender: While employed as a police officer in Howard County, Maryland in 2000, Craig was suspended for an unlawful search by “popping open” the trunk of an automobile without a warrant or probable cause.
Craig’s actions display “a serious pattern of continued disregard for the laws of the United States,” complained McNelis in a May 12 letter to Assistant U.S. Attorney Lynn Lamprecht. Protesting that Craig “attacked me, my family, and my home” by lying to a judge to obtain a search warrant, McNelis told the federal prosecutor that he fears “for the safety of my family, myself, and all Idaho citizens [who] are subjected to this man’s unchecked, illegal means and methods as a police officer.”
Apart from the likelihood that Craig — an impenitent perjurer and serial violator of the Fourth Amendment — could abuse the rights of other innocent citizens, his well-documented hostility to the truth could easily compromise investigations involving crimes of violence, McNelis warned Lamprecht: “Will the mandatory release of `Brady material’ on Stephen Craig provide the loophole that allows a murderer, child molester, or rapist to walk free?”
In his letter to Lymprecht, McNelis also referred to a May 11 conversation in which he asked the assistant U.S. attorney to investigate Craig — and described the stone wall of stolid indifference upon which that request shattered.
“After speaking to you personally … I was contacted by an FBI agent two hours later who did not provide his last name or badge number and only identified himself as `Kyle,’” McNelis recalled. “Kyle informed me that due to your unsupported decision to not pursue any form of criminal charges against Stephen Craig he would be unable to initiate any investigation whatsoever into this matters.”
Predictably, nobody has been held accountable for what was done to McNelis and his family. Like Craig, Officer Del Rio remains in law enforcement as an officer with the Boise Police Department (where he is paid more than $61,000 a year). Sheriff Raney resigned earlier this year, roughly half-way through his third elected term, to take a new position with the Justice Department that is essentially a well-compensated sinecure. Raney, who had been one of the highest-paid government officials in Idaho, arranged for his resignation to take effect the day that he became eligible to collect his $64,000 annual pension. (Idaho’s average annual household income in 2014 was a little less than $48,000.)
Ada County spent more than a half-million dollars in their futile effort to defeat McNelis’s pro se civil rights lawsuit. Without the benefit of legal training or tax subsidies, McNelis spent a considerable seeking redress for “irreparable damages” to family relationships (beginning with losing custody of his daughter), his business, and his personal reputation.
Untutored in law but armed with an agile mind and an invincible determination to pursue justice, McNelis stood alone against the Ada County government – represented in court by a panel of five well-paid government attorneys – and won. The jury that ruled in McNelis’s favor – acknowledging the injuries that had been inflicted on him and his family through the dishonesty and corruption of Deputy Craig and the agency that employed him – awarded the victim damages in the amount of a single dollar.