CASPER — Qualified immunity can be granted to officers in a wrongful detainment lawsuit stemming from a 2017 incident outside Yellowstone National Park, a federal judge decided, but only in the case of one of the suit’s two adult plaintiffs.
The suit alleges that park rangers and Park County sheriff’s deputies violated the rights of a Missouri family by stopping their car and holding them at gunpoint for nearly an hour without cause while they were trying to leave the park in July 2017.
The officers were on alert for Gerald Michael Bullinger, the suspect in an Idaho triple homicide who still hasn’t been located, more than four years later.
The defendants state they received a tip that Bullinger, an older white man with white hair, was leaving the park in a white car matching the description of the Hemry family’s car.
Because the officers had a cause for detaining Brett Hemry, whom they may have believed could be Bullinger, the judge ruled they are protected from the suit’s question of his wrongful arrest under the doctrine of qualified immunity. That covers any reasonable actions taken by law enforcement on the job, even if they are violations of the law or constitution.
But officers also detained Hemry’s wife, Genalyn, and their young child at gunpoint — reportedly asking none of the three for identification or offering any explanation for the traffic stop.
Judge Alan Johnson said in his Nov. 12 decision that qualified immunity does not apply when it comes to the question of Genalyn’s detainment, since the officers should have recognized she was not the suspect.
“This Court concludes that probable cause supported Mr. Hemry’s arrest, but not Mrs. Hemry’s,” Johnson said in his decision.
The defendants have 60 days from that ruling to appeal Johnson’s decision in the Tenth Circuit, if they choose.
The judge’s decision comes after counsel for both the sheriff’s officers and park rangers filed to dismiss the lawsuit. Those motions claimed the Hemrys failed to name certain specific defendants, noted as “John Doe” in the case, and did not cite an adequate claim that could overrule the officers’ qualified immunity.
Under the circumstances, their counsel said, their use of force “was not excessive.”
“As far as (the rangers) knew at the time, Bullinger was in that white Toyota,” one of the motions for dismissal states, “except now he had passengers as well, who may have been complicit in his plan or may even have been hostages.”
The family claims that the detainment was unlawful and caused them anguish, mental distress, psychological harm, fear and humiliation and that entitles them to damages. According to the complaint, the family alleges they were around 14 miles outside Yellowstone’s east entrance when they noticed park ranger cars following them. When they pulled over by a campsite, the rangers reportedly blocked their car and got out carrying long guns, detaining them inside and instructing them to place their hands on the ceiling.
Around half an hour later, court documents state, sheriff’s officers arrived and moved the parents into separate patrol cars at gunpoint while keeping their child inside the family car alone.
The suit alleges it took around 52 minutes from the time the Hemrys pulled over for the officers to offer any explanation or to ask for the adults’ identification. Once the family members identified themselves, they were let go.