A Cape man who was arrested by Jackson police officers over a comment he made on Facebook about guns and kindergarten has reached a settlement in his federal lawsuit with the City and its police officers.
James Robert Ross agreed on Dec. 14 to drop his lawsuit in exchange for a payment of $80,000 after the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s ruling and found in favor of Ross.
Under the terms of the agreement between Ross and the City, neither the City nor the officers named individually admit fault or claim liability.
On Jan. 25, 2015, Ross, then 20 years old, responded to a meme (an image) that one of his friends had posted on Facebook. That meme showed various firearms below a title, “Why I need a gun.”
Above each gun was an explanation of what that gun could be used for. For example, above a shotgun it said, “This one for burglars & home invasions,” above a rifle and scope, “This one for putting food on the table” and above an “assault rifle,” “This one for self-defense against enemies foreign & domestic, for preservation of freedom & liberty, and to prevent government atrocities.”
Ross interpreted this meme to be against gun control measures. Since he was for gun control, he commented on the post, “Which one do I need to shoot up a kindergarten?” He then logged off Facebook and went to bed.
“He asked a question in a very sarcastic, dark-humor way about the proper use of an assault weapon,” Ross’ attorney Gordon Glaus told The Cash-Book Journal. “While assault rifles may be appropriate in some circumstances, they are not in others. He was making that point. He never said, ‘I’m going to shoot up a kindergarten; I’m going to shoot up the kindergarten at Orchard Elementary School.’ ”
The original post and Ross’ comment were soon deleted but not before a cousin of the person who originally posted the meme took a screen shot of it with Ross’ comment. He forwarded the screen shot to another cousin without additional commentary. That individual shared it with her husband, Ryan Medlin, a member of the Jackson Police Department.
Medlin was off duty at the time. He shared the screen shot with two other Jackson police officers, Anthony Henson and Toby Freeman, who were off duty as well (All three officers were named as defendants in the lawsuit, along with the City of Jackson).
Henson and Freeman followed up on the posting when they returned to work the next day. They determined Ross had authored the comment and arrested him at his place of employment, the Casey’s gas station in Fruitland.
The officers did not mention the post or his comment during the arrest, and they didn’t ask him any questions about his gun ownership. Unprompted, Ross said his comment on Facebook was meant to be a joke, and said he was willing “to clear this up right here,” according to the written opinion of the Court of Appeals.
Placed in handcuffs, Ross was taken to the police station where he was interviewed. He further explained what had happened. Some officers at the station told him they didn’t think the case was likely to go further than the prosecutor’s office. However, Ross was not allowed to leave. He was kept in jail overnight and served a warrant for “peace disturbance.”
The next day he was transferred to the Cape Girardeau County Jail, where he was held for another two or three days until he bonded out by paying $1,000 cash.
In June 2015, Ross filed a lawsuit alleging that the officers had violated his constitutional rights under the First and Fourth Amendments.
Both parties moved for a summary judgment and the district court ruled on favor of the officers, reasoning that they were entitled to qualified immunity, which is designed to shield officers from liability when they engage in conduct that is not clearly outside the realm of what the Constitution permits.
Ross appealed the case.
The Appeals Court reversed the lower court’s decision in July 2018, noting that there was no direct threat. It was determined that the officers did not do a thorough investigation. If they had, they would have determined there was no legitimate threat to kindergartners.
No background check was made to ascertain whether Ross even owned a gun, whether he had a history of violence or had mental health issues that could make him a true threat. His political views about gun ownership or gun control measures were not brought to light.
“There were other things they could have done to ascertain a true threat and they just didn’t do it,” Glaus said.
The Appeals Court opinion concludes, “And, after interviewing Ross, officers indicated that they did not think the charges would stick, i.e., they did not believe he had truly made a ‘terrorist threat.’ Ross was nonetheless charged and held in custody for several days until he was able to post bail. In sum, it is beyond debate that — had the officers engaged in minimal further investigation — the only reasonable conclusion was that Ross had not violated Section 574.115.1(3).”