As a genre, true crime has skyrocketed in popularity over the past decade as the old slogan “truth is stranger than fiction” continues to hold up. Which is why I might suggest a new genre for pop culture consumption titled “true politics,” as the stories under this umbrella also beat anything Hollywood has to offer.
Such is the case in a recent development out of Scott County, Missouri.
In 2021, former deputy sheriff Brandon Cook was convicted for statutory sodomy of a 16 year old boy in his patrol car while he was on duty. Reportedly, two other police departments had already fired Cook before the incident. The former mayor, Ron Cummins, had urged the Scott County Sheriff Wes Drury not to hire Cook in the first place, warning he had once seen Cook plant evidence during a 2017 traffic stop.
The father of the boy who was molested was also a sheriff’s deputy and a colleague of Cook’s at the time of the crime. In September of 2018, the father threatened to sue Scott County for the incident with Cook based on the former deputy’s problematic history and a belief he never should have been given a position of power in the first place.
That’s when things really got weird.
Shortly after making the threat, the County launched an investigation into the parents of the boy. Yes, you read that right. On November 7, 2018, Spring Cook, a manager in the Missouri Department of Social Services, appeared at the plaintiffs’ family home with a deputy juvenile officer and claimed there had been a hotline call regarding their minor son.
Thus began a period of outright harassment. The traumatized boy was interviewed and searched (including invasive physical searches) by investigators multiple times. The father’s license to work was threatened. And on January 7, 2019, Cook made a preliminary finding of child neglect against the family. I don’t think I have to spell out what that means for you, but just in case: they stood to lose their custody, their jobs in public service fields, and their reputation.
Fortunately, the family found a pro-bono lawyer who helped them begin to stand up to the government (a necessity in these situations as few can afford to fight back against the state).
In August of 2019, the family sought a review of the case by the Child Abuse and Neglect Review Board (CANRB). Two days later, the CANRB issued letters holding that the findings of neglect were unsubstantiated under a preponderance of the evidence standard.
In 2020, the family said it was also investigated by the FBI over “substantially similar charges.” They believe this investigation was prompted by Spring Cook contacting the FBI in frustration over the fact that the CANRB did not substantiate her earlier allegation.
All in all, it seems abundantly clear that all of these investigations were carried out in a retaliatory capacity against the family, by the county, over their threat to sue. There was never any real evidence of child abuse or neglect on the part of the family, yet the government was able to make their lives a living hell for two years.
This is a clear violation of basic civil liberties and certainly of the father’s free speech, as the investigations began following his verbalized threat to sue. The Institute for Justice, the OG of pro-bono liberty litigation, agreed and launched a constitutional lawsuit on behalf of the family, in a case known as J.T.H., et al v. Spring Cook, et al.
According to IJ’s brief on the case, “Whatever shape they take, investigations are easy to launch and can wreak havoc with people’s lives and businesses. That’s what happened to the family at the center of this case. The parents threatened to sue the county after one of its deputy sheriffs sexually assaulted their son. A county child protective services (CPS) officer, however, retaliated against the family by launching an investigation that put the parents under a cloud of suspicion for nine months. After they were exonerated, they sued the CPS officer, but the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overruled a district court, which had held that the parents’ allegations of retaliation warranted further adjudication. According to the Eighth Circuit, there is no such thing as constitutional protection from retaliatory investigation.”
They continue, “Unfortunately, the Eighth Circuit is not alone. In at least 16 states across this nation, people who criticize their government and are investigated as the result of this criticism can get no constitutional accountability.”
To summarize, what the court is saying here is that you cannot sue for violations of your First Amendment so long as the violation is just an investigation. Just a governmental investigation that can threaten every aspect of your life and livelihood for an indeterminate amount of time.
No big deal.
To make matters worse, the court hung their shoddy judicial reasoning on one of the most corrupt practices around: qualified immunity.
Qualified immunity (QI) is a made up doctrine, invented by judges to give all government actors almost complete immunity from civil liability. It’s one of the most grotesque notions that allows all sorts of government abuse to go scot-free and leaves citizens with few recourse in the courts against those in public appointments who harm them.
Since the court was using QI to defend the county’s actions, it meant the plaintiffs would have to find an exact case in history where the court had ruled favorably for people in a situation like theirs in order for their case to advance. While there was a case that found something similar (writing parking tickets in retaliation was found to violate the law in another case), they were unable to find a ruling that dealt with investigations as retaliation.
You get the Catch-22 right? If it’s never happened before, it can never happen now, and thus they make these things magically disappear from the books.
This US Supreme Court recently denied review in this case as well, making that the end of the road for now. As of today, only Americans who live in the Ninth Circuit (California, Alaska, Arizona, Guam, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington) have protection from this kind of governmental abuse.
I spoke with the Institute for Justice’s lead attorney on the case, Anya Bidwell, about the matter. She said, “SCOTUS, in Malley vs Briggs, said that qualified immunity does not shield those who are plainly incompetent and knowingly violate the law. But this decision shows qualified immunity is much broader than that and protects even those government officials who launch investigations without probable cause.”
Just as the bad guys often win in the stories of true crime, such is the case in the genre of true politics too. But hopefully by consuming more of these accounts, Americans become more aware of their surroundings and better able to defend themselves against similar threats they may face in their own lives. Know your predator.