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Tony's Take

Messenger: Lawsuit alleges St. Louis County police forced couple out of their home illegally

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Order to vacate

An order to vacate that was placed on the Hanley Hills home of Shawn Perry and Brian Shigemura. Used with permission.

Shawn Perry and Brian Shigemura arrived at their Hanley Hills home in north St. Louis County in the afternoon. Their two children were in the back seat of their car. It was June 2017.

They were met by St. Louis County police Officer Robert Rinck, who runs the department’s problem properties unit. Rinck had a housing inspector with him. They said they were responding because of a “derelict vehicle” in front of the house and “yard and grass maintenance.” They wanted inside the house. They didn’t have a warrant.

What happened next is laid out in excruciating detail in a civil rights lawsuit filed on behalf of Perry and her two children this week against St. Louis County, Rinck and several other employees. The lawsuit, filed by attorneys Mark Pedroli and Dan Kolde, alleges that Rinck and other officers forced their way into Perry’s home by threatening to turn over her children to social services if she didn’t let them in. Once inside, because of some alleged “clutter” and “mold,” the officers issued an order to vacate the property. They arrested Perry and Shigemura on old traffic warrants and turned the children over to the Division of Family Services.

It took 40 days and legal action for the couple to reunite with their children even though there were no allegations of abuse. They were also never charged with a crime. In their lawsuit, Perry and her children allege a violation of their Fourth Amendment rights because of the warrantless search of their house and interference with familial relations. They seek damages for the loss of their home, loss of liberty, separation, and “fear, depression and anxiety.”

The lawsuit alleges that Rinck had a pattern of such behavior, and that St. Louis County was aware of it but allowed such abuses to continue.

“Defendant Rinck has a reputation among his peers and supervisors for being an overly-aggressive officer, including but not limited to having a proclivity for obtaining search warrants and requesting that the Tactical Response Unit execute those search warrants, coercing and intimidating residents into allowing him to make warrantless entries into their residences, and/or making forced warrantless entries into properties,” the lawsuit alleges. “Despite the fact that Defendant St. Louis County was aware of Defendant Rinck’s prior history and other complaints, Defendant St. Louis County allowed Defendant Rinck to continue in these unlawful activities and practices without fear of repercussion or sanction.”

Rinck is no longer with the St. Louis County Police Department, having retired last June. The problem properties unit has been rolled up into a new division of “community engagement.”

County Counselor Beth Orwick says she has received and reviewed the lawsuit but declined comment on an active lawsuit. This is not the first time the county has faced potential liability for Rinck’s actions leading the problem properties unit. In 2019 it settled a case, also filed by Kolde, in which the county’s SWAT unit shot a woman’s dog after forced entry into a house ordered by Rinck because the gas had been turned off. The county agreed to pay Angela Zorich $750,000 in that settlement, reached just before the case was handed over to a federal jury.

Pedroli sat in the courtroom for part of that trial, and that’s where he first met Perry. He said the coercion used by Rinck and the other county employees to enter her home and then remove her children with no evidence of abuse or danger is stunning.

“Threatening to take away someone’s children if they don’t let the police in their home is the worst kind of coercion, a blatant violation of constitutional rights,” Pedroli says. “Not only was this family thrown out of their home, but they were told they couldn’t come back in to abate the alleged problem. It makes you wonder what’s the real goal.”

The lawsuit alleges that after Perry complained to Rinck’s supervisors, they investigated him and recommended “his termination,” but were unsuccessful. It is a situation also noted by U.S. District Judge Patricia Cohen in the Zorich case, when she dismissed the county’s attempt to end the case on summary judgment.

“A reasonable jury could find that Defendant County had a custom of ignoring citizen complaints about Rinck,” Cohen wrote. “Over the thirteen years preceding the incident at issue in this case, BPS received over twenty allegations of misconduct by Rinck. Fifteen of those complaints involved ‘oppressive conduct and/or oppressive exercise of authority.’”

That jury never got a chance to rule on Rinck’s behavior. The next one might.

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