A man arrested last year when he drove a lawnmower to police headquarters to lodge a complaint, has sued the city seeking repayment of expenses caused by the arrest and damages for mental anguish.
Damon Burns, 59, of Santa Fe, sued the city Oct. 6. in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas.
The city argues Burns has no case because he had made threatening statements to police before he was arrested.
The complaint is about how Burns was treated when he was arrested Oct. 9, 2018. An agitated Burns had stopped outside Santa Fe Police Department “to voice his displeasure over a perceived grievance,” according to the lawsuit.
Burns is “best described as a disagreeable and handicapped gentleman of modest means,” according to his own attorney.
On the day of his arrest, Burns arrived at the police department on a lawnmower, which he drives because he has not had a state-issued driver’s license in at least 20 years, according to the lawsuit.
An officer arrested Burns in the parking lot after seeing he was wearing a holster “with an object with a wooden handle protruding from it,” according to the lawsuit.
Burns was charged with unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon and driving with an invalid license, according to the lawsuit.
The charges were “bizarre and outrageous” because Texas does not require a license to drive a lawnmower, because the item in Burns’ holster was a knife, not a firearm, and because Burns was not a convicted felon, his attorney argued.
“You can’t make a guy with a knife into a felon with a gun,” said Paul LaValle, the Texas City attorney representing Burns. “To me, it just shows the giant gap in their training.”
The district attorney’s office later dropped the charges, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit claims police violated Burns’ constitutional rights, and that police were malicious and negligent in arresting him.
Among other things, the lawsuit demands the police department repay all of Burns’ out-of-pocket expenses from the arrest, including wrecker and storage fees he incurred.
Burns paid $300 to get his lawnmower out of an impound lot, LaValle said. The lawnmower was valued at only $100.
The city responded to the lawsuit Oct. 28, claiming Burns did not state a plausible claim for relief.
The city claimed that before he drove to the police department, Burns had made multiple telephone calls to the department “stating he was a member of a militia who owned firearms,” according to the response.
A police report including the city’s response said Burns was a “known convicted felon” and that Burns had called police and demanded they tell him how they planned to protect Santa Fe residents during voting in the 2018 elections.
After they arrested Burns, police found a shotgun Burns had pawned at a local pawnshop and included that in the evidence against him on the firearms charge, according to court documents.
Police learned Burns was not a convicted felon after rechecking his criminal history more than a month after his arrest, according to court documents.
The records showed Burns had been arrested for felony drug possession in 2005 but was given a deferred adjudication, according to court records. He was released from the conviction in 2010 and was not a convicted felon, according to court documents.
The same report states Burns also had been convicted on a misdemeanor family violence charge but was allowed to have a gun in his home for protection.
While the 2018 charges ultimately were dropped before trial, the attorney representing the city and the police department said the law doesn’t give Burns the right to sue over his arrest.
“Regardless of the prosecutor’s authority to use discretion, there was probable cause for the arrest,” said attorney William Scott Helfand, who is representing the city in the case.
U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey Brown on Thursday denied Helfand’s motion to dismiss the case against Santa Fe. The motion did not comply with court procedure, Brown said.
Helfand said he intended to resubmit his motion.