A Kansas City man says police and prosecutors violated his constitutional rights when they seized more than $10,000 and a firearm from him and used the seized gun as a bargaining chip for a plea agreement.
Sean Null, 39, filed a federal lawsuit in March in the U.S. Court for the Western District of Missouri.
“I believe my rights were violated in several different facets,” he said.
The lawsuit says Kansas City police exceeded the scope of their search warrant when seizing a gun and thousands of dollars in cash from Null’s home. And that Jackson County prosecutors violated Missouri law by using the gun as leverage when they proposed a plea deal in the criminal case.
The Caldwell Law Firm is representing Null, who identifies as Asian American Pacific Islander.
“We know the way Mr. Null was treated is not representative of how the majority of our hard-working public officials treat their community,” his attorneys said. “But, in recent years, we have all seen a sharp increase in law enforcement injustices, especially those targeted at the minority population. We hope Mr. Null’s case will encourage our lawmakers and other public officials to take immediate action to prevent future injustice.”
Capt. Corey Carlisle, a spokesman for KCPD, said the department generally does not comment on litigation. The prosecutor’s office declined to comment, citing the pending lawsuit.
Searching a package from a UPS facility
According to the lawsuit, Kansas City police detective Antonio Garcia was conducting a “sort” at a UPS facility in Kansas City, Kansas, on March 13, 2020, when he saw a package from California that was “heavily taped” and pulled it aside.
Zina, a police drug-sniffing dog, “immediately sat alerting to the odor of narcotics in or about the parcel,” records said.
The detective took it back to the police department on the Missouri side of the state line. After obtaining a search warrant, he opened the package and found it contained five bundles of marijuana.
The package was addressed to a tenant at One Light, a luxury apartment building in downtown Kansas City. Four officers responded to the apartment building, where management sent a package notification to Null.
Null was arrested.
Building management consented to a sniff check and Zina alerted near the door of Null’s apartment, the search warrant application said.
A second search warrant was carried out in Null’s apartment. It specified that officers were looking for drugs. Officers found 28 grams of marijuana. Police also seized a gun, jewelry and $10,500.
Medical marijuana became legal just days later and recreational marijuana use was legalized last December.
According to Null’s lawsuit, “The officers went on a general exploration for evidence by exceeding the scope of the warrant when they searched the apartment and seized items that were not on the search warrant list.”
A third search warrant was signed later that day, but according to Null, the additional items had already been removed from his possession.
During questioning, Null said, he asked for an attorney. But his requests were ignored and two detectives continued to question him.
Prosecutors’ offer is against state law
On March 19, six days after the detective first set aside the package at the UPS facility, prosecutors filed a civil forfeiture case to keep the gun and cash. Then Null was criminally charged with delivery of a controlled substance and unlawful use of a weapon.
Prosecutors offered him a deal: He could have a diversion agreement, which would mean avoiding a criminal conviction as long as he abided by the terms, if he was willing to forfeit the gun that had been seized.
State law says seized property cannot be used in bargaining to defer prosecution of charges or obtain a guilty plea. As a result, Null’s lawsuit said, the offer was illegal. During an Oct. 19, 2021, hearing, Null voiced his concerns about the offer to Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Joel Fahnestock.
Two days later, Null got an email from prosecutors saying the criminal case had been dismissed. The asset forfeiture case was dismissed the same day. Null got the cash and gun back.
Null’s 21-count lawsuit alleges police violated Null’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unlawful searches and seizures; that police and prosecutors engaged in malicious prosecution during the asset seizure proceedings; that supervisors with the police department and the prosecutor’s office failed to properly train and supervise their employees; and abuse of process.
Named as defendants in the lawsuit are Kansas City police officers Garcia, Michael Wells, Dustin Atkins and Edward Lamport, Jackson County assistant prosecutors David Kennedy and Caitlin Brock and Daniel Portnoy, a trial team leader in the prosecutor’s office.
Also named as defendants are several employees associated with building management at One Light.
Null said he thinks the justice system in Kansas City is broken.
“My main goal is to make sure or prevent this from happening to any other Kansas City citizens going forward,” he said. “I think goal number two would be to make sure that the bad actors are held accountable. And I think goal number three would just be to shed light on these type of experiences that are occurring with the hopes of ceasing them.”