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Acknowledging a constitutional right to intimate association, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of a murder suspect who claims police ruined his family relationships in an attempt to gain their cooperation. In allowing plaintiff Jatin Patel’s civil suit against two members of the Windsor, Conn., Police Department to proceed, the appeals court ruled that Patel’s relationships with his father, siblings, wife and children should receive “the greatest degree of protection” because they were among “the most intimate of relationships.” Though the boundaries to the constitutional right to intimate association are unclear, the court wanted to “attempt to fully remedy that lack,” Senior Circuit Judge Richard Cardamone wrote in the eight-page decision, released Sept. 30. Hartford, Conn., criminal defense attorney Jon Schoenhorn, who represents Patel, said the 2nd Circuit ruling is one of only a handful of decisions nationwide to help draw lines regarding police misconduct. “It is one of the few cases in the county that spells out that police cannot interfere with a family and destroy a family’s association under the guise of a criminal investigation,” Schoenhorn said. FAMILY ESTRANGED In 1999, Patel filed suit against Windsor Police Chief Kevin Searles and Detective Debra Swanson for libel, invasion of privacy and violation of his civil rights. The defendants led a police investigation into the brutal 1996 murders of Patel’s mother and sister, in which Patel was the main suspect, but never arrested. Patel claims the defendants — suspecting the murders were the result of a financial dispute — schemed to incriminate him in the slayings, going as far as to draft and publicize fake confession letters to his family, in an effort to get them to provide information that would lead to an arrest. As a result of such tactics, Patel remains estranged from many members of his family, including his father and siblings, according to Schoenhorn. Patel further claims that, when he moved out of state in 1997, Swanson traveled to his new home in Tennessee and delivered a handwritten letter to several relatives, including his wife. In the letter, Swanson falsely accused Patel of the brutal torture and murder of his mother and sister, indicated that Patel was leading a double life, and warned the letter’s recipients that their lives were in danger, as well. The crime remains unsolved. Among other claims, Patel contends that Searles and Swanson acted dishonestly and recklessly, leading to the complete destruction of his family and community life. Defense counsel Scott Karsten, of Sack, Spector & Karsten in West Hartford, Conn., said he will file a petition for certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court. The allegations against his clients are “untrue” or “significantly embellished,” Karsten maintained. Schoenhorn, however, said he and his client “look forward to moving toward having Mr. Patel’s honor and good name restored.” “We have always known that it has been immoral to do something like that, and now we know that it is a constitutional [right] as well,” Schoenhorn said of the 2nd Circuit ruling. “We expect that we will eventually prevail no matter how many delays and roadblocks are put into [Patel's] path by the Windsor police,” the attorney said. MORE THAN A FISHING EXPEDITION? Although the defendants conceded Patel’s right to intimate association exists, they argued that their interference with Patel’s family relationship only resulted in ostracization and was not severe enough to warrant constitutional protection. But Cardamone noted that the court “rejected the defendants’ draconian and formalistic vision of how severe the impairment to the right to intimate association must be” because “for one thing” their argument was not supported by caselaw. The defense also argued that Patel’s right to intimate association was outweighed by legitimate governmental interest — namely a double homicide investigation — to which the court partially agreed. Cardamone wrote, however, that the court needed to construe the facts in a light most favorable to the plaintiff. “We do not know if their alleged attempts to destroy Patel’s family were anything more than a fishing expedition; that is, they may have gone after Patel for no reason other than his relationship to the victims,” Cardamone wrote. In considering Patel’s claims, the court also addressed whether the right to intimate association was clearly established at the time of the police’s alleged misdeeds, and whether the defendants were entitled to immunity from prosecution. The court ruled that Patel’s right was clearly established at the time of the defendants’ alleged misconduct. “We do not think it would be objectively reasonable for the police to engage in an extended public and private defamatory misinformation campaign to destroy a family, hoping that those tactics might produce incriminating leads in a murder investigation,” Cardamone wrote. Karsten said, however, he believed the court “floundered” by not ruling in favor of the qualified immunity claim. “They missed the qualified immunity analysis that should have resulted in a dismissal at this stage of the [proceedings],” Karsten said. “They talked all the talk but didn’t get the right answer.”

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