Just over a year after former Providence patrolman Will Dukes Jr. was convicted in U.S. Federal Court of on one count violating a suspect’s civil rights by willfully arresting him without probable cause, the U.S. Sixth District Court of Appeals ruled to uphold that conviction on Friday.
In a statement prepared by Judge Amul Thapar, the three judge panel agreed with the lower court’s decision, which was issued in June of 2018.
In September, Dukes was sentenced to 42 months in federal prison.
“It is usually not a good thing to see the flashing lights of law enforcement behind you,” Thapar wrote in the ruling. “Sometimes you get lucky, and the officer just gives you a warning; other times you are not so lucky, and you get a ticket. But the string of horrors Officer William Dukes Jr. paraded on Jeffrey Littlepage after a simple traffic stop has no place in our society.”
The situation began in February of 2017 when an off duty city employed called Providence dispatch and reported a car almost running him off the road. Dukes responded to the scene on Barnhill Road, which is both outside the city limits of Providence and outside the county. There he stopped Jeffrey Littlepage of Clay.
According to a report issued during the city’s investigation of the matter, there is very little video of the traffic stop itself, despite the fact there were two officers on the scene and that all Providence officers wear body cameras. What the city does have on file begins near the end of the stop, when the report says Dukes told Littlepaige to leave Barnhill Road and that he was “not allowed to come back there again.”
Littlepage has accused Dukes of striking him in the genitals and the back during that stop, although no footage of those incidents was ever presented.
Littlepage then attempted to call the city twice that same night to lodge a complaint against Dukes, but was told that the police chief was out of town and that he would need to wait until the next morning. The office on duty, Dukes, threatened to arrest him if he called back.
Littlepage then contact the sheriff’s department and the Kentucky State Police, who both contact Providence Dispatch.
“Dukes soon got wind of Littlepage’s additional calls, and he hatched a plan to respond,” Thapar wrote.” He instructed the Providence dispatcher to call Littlepage and tell him that he could come down to the police station and complain to a supervisor, even though a supervisor was not on duty that night. Littlepage suspected this was “a trap” and instead asked if the supervisor could come to his house. The dispatcher said no but nevertheless asked Littlepage for his address. After confirming that no one would come and “harass” or “arrest” him, Littlepage complied. He then went to bed for the night.”
It was at that point that Dukes drove to Clay to arrest the Littlepage. After answering the door and being told he was under arrest, rather than complying, Littlepage told Dukes he wasn’t going to jail for something he didn’t and went back inside.
“Dukes followed Littlepage into his house, and things quickly escalated,” the judge said. “In the ensuing melee (captured on Dukes’s body camera), Dukes shot Littlepage twice with a taser, sprayed him in the face with pepper spray, punched him in the nose (thereby breaking it), and hit him with his baton multiple times. Next, Dukes handcuffed Littlepage. Once they were outside, Dukes told the responding EMT that ‘he hadn’t been in a good fight like this in a long while.’”
Thapar also pointed out that one of the prosecution’s key witness during Dukes’ trial was Thomas Szurlinski, a lawyer, a former police officer and a former instructor at the Kentucky Department of Criminal Justice Training.
“While he was teaching there, he trained Dukes on the Kentucky Penal Code and Constitutional Criminal Procedure,” Thapar said. “And Dukes did well in class—scoring an 87 out of 100.”
That testimony was a big part of the case, which hinged on whether or not Dukes had probable cause to arrest Littlepage for harassing communication. If Dukes had probable cause to make the arrest, then he could not have violated Littlepage’s civil rights.
The prosecution’s argument during the jury trial held that Littlepage contacted law enforcement not to argue with them or to cause an annoyance, but to fully understand what he was supposed to do next.
Harassing communications under Kentucky law has three elements: (1) an electronic or written communication made in a manner that “causes annoyance or alarm,” (2) that is made with the intent to “intimidate, harass, annoy, or alarm another person,” and (3) the communication serves “no purpose of legitimate communication.”
“Contrary to Dukes’s claim, the evidence overwhelmingly shows there was no probable cause since Littlepage’s calls had a legitimate purpose,” the judge wrote. “In fact, even Dukes admits that Littlepage was trying to obtain information about filing a complaint and about where he could permissibly drive. Both are legitimate purposes for his calls. Dukes and the dispatcher provided Littlepage with inconsistent information, thus requiring multiple calls for clarification.”
While a judge rules on probable cause for the purpose of motions to suppress evidence during a trial, when probable cause is an element of the accused crime, that decision falls to the jury.
Dukes’ attorney argued in the appeal that Szurlinski’s testimony was prejudicial to the jury.
The three judge panel did not agree.
“With an overwhelming case in its pocket, there was no good reason for the government to test the lines of permissibility,” Thapar said. “Luckily for the government, we need not decide if this testimony resulted in error because even if it did, any error was harmless.”
Littlepage’s lawyer issued a statement on Monday.
“Justice has again prevailed in the beating of a Clay man by a City of Providence police officer, William Dukes, Jr,” wrote Amealia R. Zachary, Attorney at Law. “We are appreciative of the Sixth Circuit.”
Reach MATT HUGHES
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