Firehouse Locker Search in Rhode Island Leads to Federal Suit

The Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit on behalf of six Pawtucket firefighters accusing the city, the fire chief and a city police officer of violating their constitutional rights by conducting a locker search in September. Firefighters Noah LeBlanc, Stephen Garlick, Manuel Benevides, Scott McDonald, and Steven Como brought the action by and through the ACLU’s attorneys.

The federal court lawsuit alleges violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution; a violation of Article 1, § 6 of Rhode Island’s Constitution (which mirror’s the Fourth Amendment’s search warrant requirement); and a statutory violation of the Rhode Island Right to Privacy Act, R.I. Gen. Laws §9-1-28.1. Named personally as defendants are Pawtucket Fire Chief John Trenteseaux and Officer Mario Comella of the Pawtucket Police Department.

As explained in the complaint.

  • On Tuesday, September 5, 2023, between approximately 9:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m., Defendant Trenteseaux and, on information and belief, Defendant Comella and/or another City police officer acting in concert and/or under his direction and/or with his authorization, entered the secure residential areas of the station where the personal lockers are located and conducted a search of Plaintiffs’ and other firefighters’ personal lockers.
  • Just prior to the search, Defendant Trenteseaux requested that the Engine and Rescue at the fire station be sent to the repair shop and headquarters so that no firefighter was present at the fire station during the search.
  • Defendants gave no warning, sought no consent, and certainly received no consent from any Plaintiff before conducting said search.
  • Defendants searched Plaintiffs’ private, personal lockers, rifling through and inspecting the private and personal property of Plaintiffs without consent or other legal authorization.
  • In searching Plaintiffs’ personal lockers, Defendants Comella and Trenteseaux thus violated Plaintiffs’ right to be free from unreasonable searches and their right to privacy.

The complaint lists the items that the firefighters had in the lockers, including personal medication, wallets, cash, personal financial information, tablets, cellphones and related items. Relative to the reasonableness of the firefighter’s expectation of privacy the complaint states:

  • There was and is no written policy regarding these personal lockers.
  • Nevertheless, at all relevant times, there has been an accepted and uniform practice relative to the exclusive and private use of personal lockers.
  • There is no sharing of personal lockers or using of different personal lockers on different days.
  • Once a firefighter chooses a personal locker, it is his or her personal locker exclusively.
  • The uniform practice, custom, and policy among the members of the Pawtucket Fire Department is that personal lockers are private; no one accesses a firefighter’s personal locker without his or her permission.
  • Indeed, Plaintiffs and other firefighters would, without a second thought, leave personal items, cash, and valuables in their personal lockers without worry or concern, reflecting the understanding that their personal lockers are their own personal, private space within the distinct and secure residential areas of the station that serves as their home away from away during their long shifts.
  • [P]ersonal lockers of firefighters, including Plaintiffs, had never been subject to search before and the uniform practice, custom, and policy of Defendant City Fire Department was that the personal lockers were private, and that this privacy would be respected.

The search came on the heels of the arrest of another Pawtucket firefighter on firearms related charges. The complaint references that incident, and raises a question about why the city got a search warrant before searching that firefighter’s personal automobile, but ignored the search warrant requirement before searching their lockers:

  • Prior to the search, on or about August 30, 2023, Defendant Comella had sought and obtained a search warrant for a 2012 Silver Ford F-150… owned and operated by firefighter Patrick White.
  • Defendant Comella provided a signed affidavit in support of this request for a warrant based on a complaint that White was transporting firearms in that vehicle and observations from a partial search of that vehicle Defendant Comella had conducted before applying for the warrant.
  • Based on this affidavit, a search warrant was issued by Rhode Island District Court Judge Stephen M. Isherwood for the 2012 Silver Ford F-150.
  • This search warrant did not extend to White’s personal locker and there was no indication White brought anything into the station or that there was anything of interest in White’s locker.
  • Defendant Comella made no mention of personal lockers or any search of lockers or anything else in the station in his application for a warrant.
  • Similarly, the search warrant did not authorize or make any mention of a search of the personal lockers of any firefighters.
  • Plaintiffs had absolutely nothing to do with any firearms in White’s possession beyond being co-workers of White.
  • Neither in seeking this warrant nor after obtaining it did Defendant Comella seek a warrant for White’s locker, for Plaintiffs’ lockers, or for firefighters’ lockers more generally.
  • More specifically, Defendants sought no judicial approval for their search of Plaintiffs’ and other firefighters’ personal lockers.

Here is a copy of the complaint:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
x

Check Also

Wrongful Death Suit Blames Delayed Response of St. Louis Medic Unit

The City of St. Louis and two fire department EMTs are facing a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the sister of a man who died in 2021. Sharon LaRue claims that St. Louis Fire Department Medic 32 was dispatched for her brother, who has been struck by a vehicle. She further claims that Medic 32 stopped after being struck by a rock.

Colorado Medic and Police Officer Sued Over Death of Suicidal Man

The estate of a man who died while in police custody after suffering from a mental health emergency, has filed suit against a police officer and a fire department medic who restrained him. Kevin Dizmang died on November 15, 2022 after a failed intervention by the Colorado Springs Police Department Crisis Response Unit.