Judgment awarded to Southport, police officials in legal feud with city councilwoman

The curtains have closed, at least for now, on a longstanding political battle between Southport law enforcement, a city council member and her ex-boyfriend now that a district court has awarded judgment in favor of the city, its police chief and a former detective on their motions for summary judgment on the council members remaining claims.

After a series of allegedly orchestrated events led to the electoral defeat of former Southport City Council president and current council member Shara Hostetler, the city of Southport, Chief Thomas Vaughn and detective Jason Swanson were pulled into a legal battle with Hostetler in 2017. Swanson was recently found dead, and his autopsy was scheduled for Tuesday, March 5. 

According to a 2018 opinion issued by Indiana Southern District Court Judge Tanya Walton Pratt, Vaughn allegedly devised a plan to arrest Hostetler’s co-parent, Marc Hostetler, for illegally carrying a firearm in an attempt to damage her public credibility during the election. In doing so, Swanson was granted a warrant to search Shara’s house, as well as Marc’s condo, where Swanson seized old police uniforms and paraphernalia that Marc had not returned to previous law enforcement employers.

Marc was then arrested for impersonating a police officer and carrying a handgun without a license, but the charges were later dismissed after the defense successfully litigated a motion to suppress.

Additionally, Vaughn, Swanson and other SPD officers allegedly told Shara’s neighbors she was harboring a fugitive and that criminal charges were pending against her. Shara ultimately lost the clerk-treasurer race by 17 or 18 votes, and both she and Marc sued the defendants for violations of their constitutional rights, malicious prosecution, false arrest and defamation.

Pratt allowed most of those claims to continue in March 2018, though claims against Vaughn is his official capacity and Shara’s malicious prosecution claim against the city were dismissed. The defendants then filed a motion for summary judgement on the remaining claims, including Fourth Amendment violations brought by Shara and Marc against Vaughn and Swanson in their individual capacities and Fourth Amendment Monell claims against the city.

Specifically, the defendants argued they were entitled to judgment because the evidence did not support a claim that they illegally searched Shara’s home, and because the Indiana Tort Claims Act immunizes Southport from Shara’s defamation claim.

In an opinion issued late last month, Pratt granted summary judgment as to Shara’s Monell claim against Southport, finding no Fourth Amendment constitutional injury was caused by Vaughn in the searching of her home.

The district court further determined it was reasonable for Swanson to believe a firearm could be found at the Shara’s home, where Marc spent a significant amount of time and where he observed Marc carrying what he believed to be a firearm on at least three occasions. The court therefore rejected Shara’s contention that the search affidavit lacked a sufficient nexus between the items to be searched for and the place to be searched.

A similar conclusion was reached in regard to the Fourth Amendment claims against Vaughn and Swanson in their individual capacities, finding both are entitled to qualified immunity. Pratt found that although a factual dispute existed as to whether Vaughn was personally involved in the search of Shara’s home, there was no reckless disregard for the truth or false statements in the affidavit for the search warrant. It also found clear probable cause to support the search.

Lastly, Pratt found favor with the defendants on Shara’s defamation claim regarding statements made to her neighbors by Vaughn, Swanson and other SPD officers, noting the officers were acting within the scope of their employment in an attempt to inform the community about the situation.

“While their statements may not have been accurate, the Court concludes the Indiana Tort Claims Act was meant to protect government officials from liability in situations like these so that the officers could focus on safely and efficiently executing the warrant,” Pratt wrote in Shara B. Hostetler v. City of Southport, et al., 1:17-cv-00708. “Shara has not responded to Defendants’ contention that they are immune under the Indiana Tort Claims Act, and thus she waives any argument in opposition.”

Pratt used the same rationale to grant summary judgment to the defendants in Marc’s companion case, Marc Hostetler v. City of Southport, et al.1:17-cv-01564, finding additionally that Marc did not raise any material fact calling into question the officer’s belief that they had probable cause to request the search warrant or to arrest him. Thus, the defendants were entitled to summary judgment on Marc’s false arrest claim, the judge said.

Final judgment was issued separately in both cases.

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