by Richard Lamb–
A lawsuit filed last year by Presque Isle County prosecuting attorney Rick Steiger against several law enforcement officials has been dismissed in federal court. The Sept. 30 written ruling by the Honorable Thomas Ludington, judge of the United States Eastern District Court, Northern Division, ends Steiger’s five-count suit filed July 27, 2015. The lawsuit was originally filed in 2014, and then refiled last July.
Steiger’s suit alleged unreasonable seizure without probable cause, malicious prosecution, first amendment retaliation, gross negligence, and violation of Fourteenth Amendment due process rights. He contended that the defendants fraudulently obtained prescription drugs, then maliciously investigated and prosecuted him because he had criticized defendants’ conduct and procedures. At the close of discovery period, Judge Ludington granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment ending the suit before it got to trial.
THE BASIS FOR Steiger’s lawsuit against the local law enforcement officials goes back several years. Steiger claimed the defendants investigated him for “doctor shopping” which included information given to the Michigan State Police (MSP) by Steiger’s ex-wife. That led to charges filed against him. The complaint said that during a Dec. 11, 2011 meeting, Steiger “clearly expressed his opinion that the Huron Undercover Narcotics Team (HUNT) officers were not doing their job; they were not providing full disclosure of evidence; there was a long history of HUNT officers being deceptive,” and other allegations.
In the case brought against Steiger in 2012, District Court Judge Theodore Johnson ruled there was no fraud committed by Steiger and did not bind the case to Circuit Court, clearing Steiger of the charges. The Michigan attorney general’s office appealed the decision, but a three-judge panel denied the request in March 2013. During Steiger’s preliminary examination in February 2012 in front of Johnson, his attorney Dan White claimed it was a matter of doctors not keeping proper records.
At the time he filed his suit last year, Steiger said the complaint shows “why they went after me.” Judge Ludington ultimately disagreed with the basis of Steiger’s suit.
“Although I am pleased by Judge Ludington’s ruling on Friday, it was not unexpected. Almost everyone in the law enforcement community who is familiar with Mr. Steiger’s criminal investigation and his subsequent allegations, are aware of the basic laws and law enforcement protections cited in Judge Ludington’s dismissal,” said Capt. Michael Caldwell, now of the Gaylord Post of the Michigan State Police (MSP).
“We knew then, as we do now, that our actions in investigating Mr. Steiger were fully warranted and absolutely required under the principle that the law must be applied equally to everyone, regardless of their office or status in the community. We regret nothing.”
Text of the judgement is here:
IN ADDITION to Caldwell, those named in Steiger’s suit, along with Sheriff Bob Paschke, undersheriff Joe Brewbaker, and Bradley Szatkowski who was assigned as an undercover officer of HUNT while employed by the Presque Isle County Sheriff’s Department (PISD), were Lt. Robert Hahn, who was commander of HUNT; Patrick Boyd, MSP officer who was assigned as to oversight of HUNT; Delmar Putnam, MSP officer who was commander of HUNT; Ken Mills Jr. MSP officer, commander of Straits Area Narcotics Team (SANE) and MSP officer Alan Burke. Paschke and Brewbaker were later dropped from the suit due to a statute of limitations stipulation.
In his 23-page ruling (which is available to view on PIAdvance.com) Judge Ludington agreed the defendants did not violate Steiger’s Fourth Amendment rights.
“They assert that the probable cause was not so obviously lacking as to overcome the defendants qualified immunity and that Steiger likewise cannot overcome qualified immunity as to the malicious prosecution claim,” Judge Ludington said in the ruling.
“Qualified immunity balances two important interests—the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction and liability when they perform their duties reasonably,” is how Judge Ludington quoted a prior case.
He said the defendants were justified in their investigation, which led to charges filed against Steiger in 2012, but Steiger’s suit against them was not merited.
“Even construing the facts in a light most favorable to Steiger, a reasonable officer could have concluded that probable cause existed,” Judge Ludington stated. Later in the ruling the judge said that Steiger did not allege the attorney general’s office had “any reason to spitefully or maliciously bring a suit against him. Thus, the attorney general office’s independent determination that probable cause existed is strong evidence that there was sufficient evidence for a reasonable officer to believe probable cause existed.”
As for Steiger disclosing his treatment by multiple physicians, the judge said “even construing the medical records in a light most favorable to Steiger, (the physicians) did not completely foreclose the possibility of fraudulent behavior.” The judge said that testimony from doctors involved in the case against Steiger “all asserted that no physician with total knowledge of the situation would have continued prescribing pain medications.”
Judge Ludington summarized that portion of his ruling by saying there was sufficient evidence for the defendants to “reasonably investigate the case and submit it to the attorney general’s office.”
THE NEWLY-DISMISSED case is only one of several issues Steiger has initiated against law enforcement or other local elected officials. Late last year, Steiger’s “request for investigations” to the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) was denied. The DOJ refused to investigate Steiger’s claims against the sheriff’s department, which Paschke said “are totally false and have no merit to them.”
Another lawsuit brought by Steiger against four members of the Presque Isle County board of commissioners is ongoing. Commissioners Carl Altman, Stephen Lang, Robert Schell and Michael Darga were named in the suit, filed in United States District Court November 24 of last year. The defendants each voted in favor of removing Steiger as civil counsel to the board at its Aug. 28, 2015 meeting. Commissioner Lee Gapczynski, who voted against removing Steiger as civil counsel, was not named in the petition.
Steiger’s term of office ends Dec. 31 and he did not run for re-election. Ken Radzibon defeated former assistant prosecutor Melissa Goodrich in the Republican primary election.
Radzibon has since been appointed assistant prosecuting attorney after Goodrich resigned her position following the primary election.
Mr. Steiger did not respond to a request for comment on this story.