Bad News in Manassas Park

Tuesday, December 19th, 2006

If you’ll remember back to February of last year, I told you about a raid in which dozens of police officers — some wearing ski-mask hats and pumping shotguns — stormed a pool hall in Manassas Park, Virginia on Ladies’ Night. Though the raid was unquestionably a drug raid, it was conducted under the auspices of an alcohol inspection, negating the burden of a search warrant. They found nothing.

Nevertheless, after the raid, Manassas Park police continued to harass bar owner David Ruttenberg and his customers. I actually visited the bar earlier this year, and witnessed the harassment. I watched as patrol officers pulled over one pool hall customer after another, searched them, harassed them, and released them.

I haven’t written more about this story because for the better part of the last year, I’ve been talking to Ruttenberg’s customers, acquaintances, and associates, as well as doing a bit of independent investigation into what’s been happening to him. I didn’t want to write too much, because I wanted people to continue to be able to talk to me.

Since that raid, Ruttenberg has essentially lost his bar. The state has revoked his liquor license, despite the fact that the charges against him were either paltry, or, with respect to the more serious charges (mostly, allowing drug deals to go on in his business), were instigated by the police, either by undercover officers or the informants who were working for them. They have chased away his customers with threats and harassment, spread vicious rumors about Mr. Ruttenberg around the town, and even scared off would-be buyers of the business.

There’s actually even more to the story, which I can’t get into right now, but will soon. Suffice it say, this man and his business have been ruined by the city of Manassas Park, its elected officials, and its police officers. It’s really a horrible story.

Unfortunately, it gets worse. Mr. Ruttenberg’s Section 1983 suit was dismissed yesterday by a federal judge. I haven’t seen the opinion yet, but apparently the judge granted a blanket motion to dismiss by all defendants named in the suit, all of whom cited the qualified immunity granted to public employees. Which means that not only won’t Mr. Ruttenberg get his day in court, he won’t even get to discovery in his case, where he might have been able to find out just how deep and extensive the effort to close down his business really was. According to Mr. Ruttenberg and his father (who also owns part of the business), the judge said at the hearing — before he’d even made a ruling — that the entire purpose of qualified immunity is to protect police officers and public officials from “suits like this one.”

Mr. Ruttenberg’s next step would be to appeal to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. Problem is, such an appeal would be costly. The guy has already had to sell his house, and without a liquor license, his bar loses money every day it’s open. And the 4th Circuit isn’t exactly known for its sympathy to claims of civil rights violations by police and public officials.

My file on Mr. Ruttenberg’s ordeal is several inches thick. You wouldn’t believe some of the shit that has happened to this guy. I’ve introduced him to several journalists who were sympathetic, but didn’t have the time or the column space they’d need to properly investigate, check out, and tell his story. The thing is, despite several years now of spying on him, attempting to entrap him, harassing him, and harassing his friends and customers, they don’t have a damned thing on him. Prior to all of this Ruttenberg and his business had a clean record. He himself has no criminal record, and his bar hadn’t a single ABC violation recorded against it. Since all of this flared up, he’s been arrested once, on a bogus charge of filing a false police report — which itself is a pretty good story. The prosecutor declined to pursue the case.

I’ll also say in Mr. Ruttenberg’s defense that everything he’s told me about this case has thus far checked out. I’ve yet to catch him lying, or even exaggerating. There are many times that he’s told me of something a police officer or Manassas Park public official has done that seemed too outlandish or ridiculous to be true. But when I’d go to check the story out, I’d get independent confirmation that events happened exactly as he said they did.

I hope to go into more detail on all of this soon. It’s just a very long, very detailed story. There are also a couple of other journalists now interested in the case. The FBI’s public corruption people are apparently investigating as well, though the case seems to be a fairly low priority for them.

Over the last ten months, I’ve watched a man get ruined by his local government. It’s a long, complicated, ugly, and infuriating story. Thing is, the story will only get sadder if they’re allowed to get away with it.

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