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Huron activists Stacy and Jason Hinners sue to permanently stop the City’s retaliatory prosecution

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The couple has filed an amended complaint alleging selective prosecution and a variety of First Amendment violations for the case brought against her 24 hours after she sued the City of Huron for approving secret payments to a city employee.

Cleveland, OH — Today, Huron activist Stacy Hinners and her husband, Jason, filed an amended lawsuit to block local personal-injury and DUI-defense lawyer Michael O’Shea from prosecuting her for a speech to Huron City Council announcing that she had filed a lawsuit seeking to reverse secret payments it had been making to its city manager.

The lawsuit also seeks damages against former Mayor Brad Hartung, former City Manager Andy White, and former Law Director Aimee Lane—all of whom have resigned since Mrs. Hinners was charged—alleging that they violated every single one of the couple’s First Amendment rights by participating in a conspiracy to harass Mr. and Mrs. Hinners in retaliation for their work holding the Huron's government accountable.

The lawsuit also names former Council member Glen Ginesi as a defendant, alleging he participated in the mayor’s campaign of retaliation by interfering with Mr. Hinners’s attempts to become a member of the clergy at his church and telling the church what it should accept as “Christian behavior.”

The complaint includes several other current and former City officials, including the police officers who pulled her out of the meeting and filed charges against her.

According to the complaint, the prosecution began 24 hours after Mrs. Hinners announced, during the public-comments portion of the May 14 meeting of City Council, that she and her husband had filed a lawsuit under the Open Meetings Act. As soon as Mrs. Hinners disclosed the lawsuit, Council member and then-Vice Mayor Trey Hardy, a defendant, cut her off from speaking any more, and Mayor Brad Hartung announced that he was having her charged with disturbing a lawful meeting. Indeed, police arrived minutes later, yanked Mrs. Hinners out of her chair, threw her against the wall, and charged her with disturbing a lawful meeting. Days later, they charged her with resisting arrest, as well.

According to the complaint, the campaign of retaliation violated all of Mr. and Mrs. Hinners’s First Amendment rights:

  • Attempting to impose Defendant Ginesi’s definition of “Christian behavior” on Mr. Hinners’s church, in violation of the Establishment Clause;
  • Interfering with Mr. Hinners’s attempts to become a deacon, in violation of the Free Exercise Clause;
  • Punishing Mrs. Hinners for speaking about her lawsuit, in violation of the Free Speech Clause;
  • Punishing Mrs. Hinners for her published statements opposing Defendant Hartung’s agenda, in violation of the Free Press Clause,
  • Removing Mrs. Hinners from a meeting of fellow citizens, in violation of the Assembly Clause; and
  • Punishing Mr. and Mrs. Hinners for filing a lawsuit against the City, in violation of the Petition Clause.

The complaint also alleges Lane blocked the City’s independent prosecutor from deciding whether to drop the charges and instead hired O’Shea, offering him $150 an hour to pursue a either conviction or an agreement that would insulate her and the City from a lawsuit for false arrest.

And the complaint also alleges that Lane’s hiring of O’Shea was illegal in that:

  • Ohio law prohibits the City from hiring a private attorney to prosecute a case where it is the complaining witness;
  • the City never authorized Lane to hire a special prosecutor;
  • the authority to appoint a special prosecutor belonged to the actual prosecutor, Michael Kaufman;
  • Lane had a conflict of interest legally barring her from any involvement in the case;
  • the City’s contract with Lane and her firm, Walter Haverfield LLP, explicitly excluded her from handling any litigation the City’s behalf without a special agreement;
  • the City’s authority to investigate and prosecute any offenses related to the May 14 meeting was superseded when the Erie County Court of Common Pleas appointed the Ohio Attorney General to investigate; and
  • Defendant O’Shea never took his required oath of office to uphold the Constitution.

The improper appointment, the complaint alleges, means that—consistent with federal case law—O'Shea is not entitled to the judicially created absolute immunity from liability for damages from which prosecutors generally benefit, no matter how outrageous their conduct.

The complaint further alleges that Lane, Walter Haverfield, and the City negligently and recklessly hired O’Shea as prosecutor to go after Mrs. Hinners despite publicly available information about his background, including an ethics complaint by an administrative judge written on behalf of all the members of a court, and federal tax liens. The predictable result, the complaint alleges: O'Shea was indifferent to Mrs. Hinners's constitutional rights—and interested only his own financial gain.

In 2019, a visiting judge in the Huron municipal court scheduled a hearing to determine whether the prosecution was being brought to retaliate against Mrs. Hinners for exercising her First Amendment rights. Her attorneys, from The Chandra Law Firm LLC, were prepared with witnesses, videos, and audio recordings proving the City’s malicious intent, but half an hour before the hearing was to start, O’Shea dismissed the case, saying that all his most important witnesses were under criminal investigation—but if they’re not charged, he’ll be able to start the whole process all over again.

Since then, the Huron's voters have elected a new council, Lane has been replaced as law director, and White has resigned. But the new city government continues to leave the charges hanging over Mrs. Hinners’s head, leaving O’Shea free to violate Mrs. Hinners's rights all over again.

Mr. and Mrs. Hinners filed suit to prevent any further harm to Mrs. Hinners and to recover for the harm thus far inflicted.

Federal law allows victims of malicious prosecutions to vindicate their First Amendment rights by seeking an injunction ordering the government to stop prosecuting the case. So Mrs. Hinners has asked a federal court to intervene, declare that any charges against her arising from her May 14, 2019 speech violate her constitutional rights, and order all the defendants to pay damages.

Subodh Chandra, Mrs. Hinners’s lead counsel, said:

We rarely see First Amendment retaliation so sweeping that the defendants violated every clause of the First Amendment—not just the Free Speech Clause. Mrs. Hinners never disturbed any meeting; all she did was remind Huron City Council it needs to meet in public if it wants to spend the public’s money.
It took courage for Mrs. Hinners to stand up for her rights, rather than make the false statements the City sought in exchange for dropping the charges against her. Our democratic form of government relies on people like the Hinnerses to watch what the government is doing, report that news to their neighbors, and hold elected officials accountable when they get things wrong.

The case is captioned Hinners, et al. v. City of Huron, et al., U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio Case No. 1:19-cv-02868, and is assigned to Judge Pamela Barker.

The new amended complaint may be viewed here.

Mr. and Mrs. Hinners are represented by Subodh Chandra and Brian D. Bardwell of The Chandra Law Firm LLC.

Related Practice Areas
First AmendmentGovernment Ethics, Misconduct, Fraud, & AbuseOhio Public Records Act, Open Meetings Act, FOIA, & Sunshine LawsPolice Misconduct & BrutalityMalicious Prosecution, Abuse of Process, and False Arrest

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