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IMPD detective must stand trial on false affidavit in murder

January 16, 2019

An Indianapolis police detective who knowingly falsified information in an affidavit that led to the imprisonment of a man charged with murdering his elderly mother lost an appeal Tuesday and must face the falsely accused man’s civil lawsuit.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a Southern District Court ruling that the detective’s affidavit failed to establish probable cause against the victim’s son, violating his Fourth Amendment rights.

Forty minutes after a 911 call was placed, Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department detective Charles Benner responded and arrived at the scene of an 88-year-old woman’s apartment where her son, William Rainsberger, had found her laying on the floor, her head covered by a bloody blanket. Rainsberger told paramedics he thought she had received blunt force trauma to the head, but he did not look under the blanket to check for fear of increased bleeding.

After giving statements to Benner, Rainsberger returned to the IMPD station the next day per Benner’s request to hear the autopsy results. However, Benner accused Rainsberger of murdering his mother for her money and was asked to take a polygraph. Without waiting for Rainsberger’s DNA results, Benner submitted a probable cause affidavit to the Marion County prosecutor, which was denied.

A second almost-identical probable cause affidavit was submitted in May 2014, without the DNA evidence. It instead included cell phone records to suggest that Rainsberger had called his brother from his mother’s apartment at 2:40 p.m. — hours after she was attacked and a little more than an hour before Rainsberger called 911. The affidavit also stated that cell phone tower location data could not place Rainsberger outside the area of his mother’s apartment during the relevant period.

Rainsberger was ultimately charged with the murder of his mother and spent two months in jail before being released on bail. A prosecutor later dismissed the case due to evidentiary problems and the charges were dropped. Rainsberger sued Benner under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, asserting that Benner had violated his Fourth Amendment rights.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana denied Benner’s motion for summary judgment, holding that a reasonable jury could find that Benner knowingly or with reckless disregard for the truth made false or misleading statements in his affidavit. It further denied Benner’s request for qualified immunity, finding that probable cause did not exist without the false or misleading statements, and that he violated the Fourth Amendment.

On appeal, Benner requested that the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reverse that decision, which it declined to do in William Rainsberger v. Charles Benner, 17-2521.

Among other things, the panel noted that the most damning information included in the second affidavit were the phone records. Assuming that Benner knew the timestamp was inaccurate yet chose to include it anyway, the court admonished him for failing to note that that the phone call made by Rainsberger had been routed through a cell tower in Chicago, where it was one hour earlier. Thus, despite the 2:40 p.m. time stamp, the call had been placed at 3:40 p.m. Indianapolis time. “It was the call that Rainsberger had made to (his brother) just after he found Ruth and called 911. Benner chose to use the inaccurate and incriminating time in his affidavit,” Judge Amy Coney Barrett wrote for the panel.

The panel further noted Benner continually made false claims and intentionally withheld information throughout the affidavit regarding video footage from a Kroger where Rainsberger had stopped at before finding his mother, evidence of burglary at the scene, Rainsberger’s concern for his mother, and his reaction to being asked to take a polygraph test.

Despite conceding to knowingly or recklessly making false statements in the probable cause affidavit, Benner asserted that he was entitled to qualified immunity, even if he did violate Rainsberger’s Fourth Amendment rights.  

“He emphasizes, however, that knowingly or recklessly misleading the magistrate in a probable cause affidavit — whether by omissions or outright lies — only violates the Fourth Amendment if the omissions and lies were material to probable cause,” Barrett wrote. “He claims that his weren’t, but we disagree.

“Materiality depends on whether the affidavit demonstrates probable cause when the lies are taken out and the exculpatory evidence is added in,” Barrett continued. “And when that is done here, Benner’s affidavit fails to establish probable cause to believe that Rainsberger murdered his mother. Because it is clearly established that it violates the Fourth Amendment ‘to use deliberately falsified allegations to demonstrate probable cause,’ … Benner is not entitled to qualified immunity.”

Rainsberger is represented by Indianapolis civil-rights attorney Rich Waples, who said in an email Wednesday that his client "suffered one of the worst losses one can endure — the tragic murder of a family member. Then he was framed for that murder by an overzealous cop who made up evidence against him and ignored evidence which exonerated him.

"When those lies were uncovered by a great criminal defense attorney, David Hennessey, the prosecutor dismissed the criminal case. Mr Rainsberger looks forward to exposing the officer's misdeeds in his federal civil rights trial," Waples said.

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