Legal battle between Southport official, police chief to continue

A politically charged legal battle between the Southport police chief and a city council member will continue after a district court judge partially denied the city's and chief’s partial motions for judgment on the pleadings.

Former Southport City Council president and current council member Shara Hostetler sued the City of Southport, chief Thomas Vaughn and detective Jason Swanson in 2017 after the law enforcement officials allegedly orchestrated a scheme to publicly embarrass Hostetler and undermine her 2015 bid for Southport clerk-treasurer.

According to a Tuesday opinion in Shara B. Hostetler v. City of Southport, et al., 1:17-cv-00708, Vaughn’s wife — who served as the city’s deputy clerk-treasurer under the incumbent Hostetler was trying to unseat — supported the incumbent in the election, so Vaughn devised a plan to arrest Hostetler’s co-parent and damage her public credibility.

The opinion says Vaughn hired Swanson upon the promise that Swanson would find a way to arrest Marc Hostetler, the father of Shara’s son. Vaughn told Swanson that Marc was illegally carrying a gun, and Swanson used the “anonymous tip” to obtain a search warrant for “Marc’s” house. Though the probable cause affidavit claimed the warrant was for Marc’s house, the listed addresses was actually Shara’s.

Swanson then led the search of Shara’s home and seized her personal handgun, which was kept under her mattress. He threatened to remove Shara’s children from her custody for child endangerment, but also told her she could avoid arrest by claiming the gun belonged to Marc.

When Shara declined that offer, Swanson subsequently obtained a warrant for Marc’s address and seized old police uniforms and paraphernalia that he had not returned to previous law enforcement employers. Southport police arrested Marc for impersonating a police officer, but the charges were later dismissed.

Though Shara was never charged with any crime, Vaughn, Swanson and other SPD officers allegeldy told her neighbors that she was harboring a fugitive and that criminal charges were pending against her. Shara eventually lost the clerk-treasurer race by 17 votes.

Shara’s lawsuit brought numerous claims, including alleged violations of her constitutional rights, malicious prosecution and defamation. The defendants moved for judgment on the pleadings on all but Hostetler’s Fourth Amendment claim, but Judge Tanya Walton Pratt let multiple claims continue in her Tuesday ruling.

First, Pratt allowed Hostetler’s Monell claim against the city to continue after finding that Vaughn, as the police chief, is the final policymaker for his department. But because the claim against the city can continue, Pratt dismissed the claims against Vaughn in his official capacity as duplicative.

However, the individual capacity claims against the chief will continue because Hostetler alleged he was “an integral part in initiating, facilitating, and approving the events that allegedly deprived her of her constitutional rights, which the Court accepts as true.” Pratt reached the same conclusion regarding Marc’s federal claims in his companion case, Marc Hostetler v. City of Southport, et al, 1:17-cv-01564.

Turning to Shara’s state law claims, Pratt determined the city is not entitled to law enforcement immunity under the Indiana Tort Claims Act because Vaughn’s actions were outside the scope of his official duties.

“Due to the alleged personal nature of Chief Vaughn’s actions in this case, Shara has sufficiently pled that Chief Vaughn’s alleged tortious acts were not for the purpose of furthering SPD business,” Pratt wrote. “Moreover, the egregious nature (and personal stake) of allegedly setting out to interfere with a tight political race to secure a defeat using allegedly manufactured criminal charges as an instrument is not within the scope of employment.”

Finally, Pratt allowed Hostetler’s state law defamation claim to continue, but granted judgment to the city on the malicious prosecution claim because Hostetler conceded she was never arrested or prosecuted. Marc withdrew all of his state law claims except a false arrest claim against the city, which the defendants did not move to dismiss.

“In any event, false arrest, if shown, bars application of law enforcement immunity under ITCA,” Pratt wrote.

Shara did not respond to a request for comment on Pratt’s ruling, while Vaughn told Indiana Lawyer on Tuesday he had not yet read the entry.

The legal battle between Hostetler and Vaughn has filtered into other areas of city business, with Fox59 News reporting in September that Vaughn, surrounded by local police officers, called for a no-confidence vote against Hostetler, who was then council president, in light of the litigation. The council passed the no confidence vote by a 3-2 margin, while audience members booed at Hostetler. 

According to The Southsider Voice, Hostetler was permitted to continue her council service, but not as president. She is currently listed on the city’s website as an at-large representative.

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