Appeals Court Rules in Rack ‘n’ Roll Billiards Case

Saturday, July 12th, 2008

A few weeks ago, a three-judge panel from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit tossed out (pdf) most of the civil rights suit filed by David Ruttenberg, owner of the Rack ‘n’ Roll Pool hall in Manassas Park, Virginia.  Fortunately, the court did leave one Fourth Amendment claim that could save Ruttenberg’s case.

For a couple of years now, I’ve been reporting on how officials in the tiny town of Manassas Park have been harassing Ruttenberg and attempting to take away his business.  The police there have been investigating Rutenberg for several years, for what they’ve recently said are drug crimes.  As of yet, they’ve found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing by Ruttenberg.  They’ve arrested him twice on charges unrelated to drugs—once for filing a false police report and once for bouncing a check—and in both cases the charges were eventually dropped.

The police in Manassas Park have hired informants to set up drug deals in Ruttenberg’s bar (which they later cited as evidence that Ruttenberg’s bar was a filled with drug activity).  They’ve pulled over Ruttenberg’s former girlfriends, and threatened them with charges unless they provided information against him.  They’ve even co-opted security Ruttenberg had hired specifically for the purpose of keeping drugs out of his bar, and had them set up drug transactions in the bar. 

The story took a particularly weird twist last year when local politics blogger Greg Letiecq and I revealed that one of the charges levied against Ruttenberg by the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control—that he was allowing lewd activity to go on at the bar—was due to photos dozens of photos of women dancing in various stages of undress that were taken by then-Manassas Park Vice Mayor Kevin Brendel.  At the time, Brendel was working at Ruttenberg’s bar as a part-time D.J.  Current and former Rack ‘n’ Roll staff say Brendel encouraged the women to strip and put on lewd contests when Ruttenberg wasn’t around, despite repeated warnings from Ruttenberg.

I’ve personally witnessed police harassment of Ruttenberg’s customers.  And I’ve gone through hours of surveillance video with him showing countless attempts to set him up.

Ruttenberg has shown remarkable resolve through all of this.  He records every phone conversation.  He keeps meticulous surveillance video that covers every corner of his property.  He collects statements and affidavits from staff, friends, and witnesses.  He has hired private investigators.  He has a formidable collection of evidence of public corruption and police misconduct (I’ve spent hours with him at the bar going through it all).  Unfortunately, local prosecutor Paul Ebert (the same prosecutor in the Ryan Frederick case) seems uninterested.  As does the FBI.  And the Virginia State Police.

The appeals court ruling was pretty dismissive of Ruttenberg’s suit (the ruling also misstates several facts about the case).  But the one claim they left intact may turn out to be enough.  The appeals court panel reversed the district court’s dismissal of Ruttenberg’s Fourth Amendment claim that the tactics the police used in a 2004 raid on Rack ‘n’ Roll were excessive.  And they most certainly were. 

The police initially sought a criminal search warrant for the raid.  They couldn’t find a judge to grant them one.  So instead, they claimed they were conducting a routine alcohol inspection, and raided the place anyway.  This "regulatory inspection" was clearly intended to intimidate Ruttenberg and his customers, and to find evidence of criminality—the police brought more than 70 officers from Manassas Park and surrounding jurisdictions, some in uniform, some in plain clothes, and still others in ski-mask hats and camouflage pumping shot guns as the stormed the place (on Ladies’ Night).

If this was a routine alcohol inspection, you have to wonder what an actual drug raid might have looked like.  Here’s Ruttenberg’s surveillance video of the raid.  Er, "inspection":

The only people arrested in the raid were either undercover cops or people Ruttenberg later learned were working for the police as confidential informants.

The bad news is that while the ruling remands the remaining claim back to the district court for further proceedings, the panel then expresses a good deal of skepticism about whether the remaining claim should ultimately survive.  In fact, the ruling nearly instructs the district court on how to dismiss it.

The good news is that Ruttenberg has several state claims that remain intact, which he can now attach to his federal case.  That gets him into discovery, where he can demand to see everything the town of Manassas Park has accumulated in its long investigation of him.

Ruttenberg’s other problem right now is that he has run out of money to pursue the case any further.  He had kept his bar open at a loss for a couple of years in hopes of selling it.  He was finally able to sell it at a steep loss last year, but that and the legal fees he has accumulated have wrecked him.  He’s currently looking for legal representation to help him continue the case.

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20 Responses to “Appeals Court Rules in Rack ‘n’ Roll Billiards Case”

  1. #1 |  Tritone | 

    I’ve been following this case since I started reading The Agitator, and I have to say it’s one of the more saddening stories, not simply because this type of harassment can occur but because it can go on for months or years with seemingly no consequences for the police officers and city officials involved.

  2. #2 |  Sydney Carton | 

    It reads completely like a sham decision. They’re going to get away with it.

    You can’t trust that the courts in this country will protect you anymore. You have to assume they won’t. Judges are completely politicized and don’t give a crap about protecting people’s rights.

  3. #3 |  tarran | 

    Sidney,

    Not since the courts handed down death sentences for some of the conspirators in Shay’s rebellion can you say that the courts have protected you.

  4. #4 |  Sydney Carton | 

    tarran,

    For me, it was the forced starvation and murder of Terry Schaivo that did it.

  5. #5 |  Marty | 

    there’s huge irony every time Paul Ebert says, ‘The people vs…’ with his track record of serving citizens.

  6. #6 |  Dave Krueger | 

    As they say: “Even if we don’t have enough to convict, we can still destroy their lives.”

  7. #7 |  annemg | 

    Murder? LOL….

  8. #8 |  j.d. | 

    when good, decent, law-abiding citizens are harassed, prosecuted, defamed, and financially ruined by the government, who are they to turn to?

    where does the long-stretch of civility become…something a little more? how long should a man endure this?

  9. #9 |  supercat | 

    //Murder? LOL….//

    Terri’s parents claim that she was capable of receiving fluids orally. Michael Schiavo claims that she wasn’t. He forbade any attempt at oral hydration because his doctors said she would be likely to aspirate on any fluids given. It should be noted that she was able to swallow the saliva she produced, so she is known to have had at least some swallowing ability.

    Florida state law forbids the denial of oral sustenance to someone who will starve or dehydrate without it. Perhaps attempting to administer oral sustenance to Terri would have worked, perhaps not. I cannot imagine any harm it could have done if it didn’t work (Terri would end up neither more nor less dead); the consequence if it did work might have greatly annoyed Mr. Schiavo et al., but could not legally be regarded as harm.

    Why were Mr. Schiavo et al. so adamant that she be denied oral sustenance? If she was capable of receiving it, such denial was murder. If she wasn’t capable, why not allow the parents to try? If they failed, his hands would be clean. The most logical reason that comes to mind for his insistence that Terri not receive oral sustenance is not that he thought it wouldn’t work, but because he feared that it might. Smells like murder to me.

  10. #10 |  Matt Moore | 

    Is there a corollary of Godwin’s Law for off-topic arguments about Terri Schiavo?

  11. #11 |  James | 

    Radley –

    Might you be able to interest the Institute for Justice in this case? It seems like the sort of case they should be interested in, and on the bonus side, they are very local.

  12. #12 |  Chris | 

    I also have been following this story since it first appeared in this blog.

    Justice is only for those who can afford it.

  13. #13 |  j.d. | 

    ^ it’s not about affording. no amount of money could have given ruttenberg the justice in the courts that he deserves. it’s about up versus down.

  14. #14 |  TC | 

    A very specific example of why our founding fathers created the second amendment!

    “America is at that awkward stage. It’s too late to work within the system, but too early to shoot the bastards.”

    IS IT?

  15. #15 |  Adam W. | 

    Someone please remind me why they are so out to get Ruttenberg?

  16. #16 |  AV | 

    That’s my question also. What’s in it for the police to run this pool hall out of business?

  17. #17 |  Linda Morgan | 

    “Someone please remind me why they are so out to get Ruttenberg?”

    A couple of excerpts from Radley’s 2/20/06 post about this case:

    Prior to the raid, Rack n’ Roll Billiards had a spotless, 18-year record with ABC. David Ruttenberg has no criminal record, nor does his father Neil, who’s a partner in the club. David’s brother, and Neil’s son, is the incoming president of the Fairfax Bar Association. Neil says he had a top-secret security clearance with the U.S. government up until 2000. He has a JD from Columbia, and has been practicing law for 40 years. His daughter is a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy reserves, and served in both Gulf Wars. This isn’t a shady family. It’s difficult to see what reason police would have had to target David Ruttenberg or the bar he runs in a drug raid…

    …One reason the Ruttenbergs suspect David Ruttenberg is being targeted, believe it or not, goes back a few years to a time when Ruttenberg and a Manassas Park police officer were romantically interested in the same woman. That officer apparently nursed a grudge against Ruttenberg, and is now the head of the narcotics task force that serves Manassas Park. They also suspect that once the raid failed, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars to taxpayers, Manassas Park police became determined to justify the raid by continually pursuing David Ruttenberg until they could find a reason to arrest him.

    I haven’t been following closely since then, so I don’t know if other theories have emerged to eclipse this one, but I found it interesting.

  18. #18 |  Matt Moore | 

    #15, #17 – There was also an off-track betting site the city was trying to attract the strip mall where Ruttenberg’s bar is located. He had some deal in his lease that would have made the city pay him 6 or 7 figures if new development caused his bar to close.

    Evidently they didn’t want to pay.

  19. #19 |  Norm Bradford | 

    Get me Ruttenberg’s coordinates and I’ll see about representing him pro bono

  20. #20 |  David Ruttenberg | 

    Thanks Norm,

    I appreciate the chance to talk with you.
    My email is david@rnrclub.com

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