Federal lawsuit claims Muncie police officers targeted opponents of city councilwoman

Federal lawsuit filed against Muncie, Indiana, police

MUNCIE, Ind. (WISH) — A federal lawsuit filed Monday names the city of Muncie, its police department as well as a city councilwoman. The plaintiffs said several police officers ran a criminal background check on political opponents of the councilwoman.

This is the latest to a story News 8 broke on Aug. 6.

Plaintiffs Audie Barber, Sarah Beach and Kristopher Bilbrey compared it to the uproar that would happen if you came home to find police officers searching through your things without a warrant. In this case, the search was of their criminal history.

City councilwoman Nora Powell said on Aug. 6 and on Monday that she had nothing to do with it.

Federal lawsuit claims Muncie police officers targeted opponents of city councilwoman

But the plaintiffs said she is the only thing connecting the three of them.

“Violated, very much violated,” said Barber about the experience.

“I was quite shocked,” Beach added. “For a couple of days, I was in disbelief that they would have done that. It’s a complete violation of my right to privacy.”

“My rights have been violated,” Bilbrey said.

As News 8 already reported, it started when Bilbrey got text messages from untraceable phone numbers with information that could only come from his driver’s license.

“Weaponizing police officers to silence critics, weaponizing police officers to intimidate or harass is never OK,” he said.

According to Indiana State Police, his data was run twice. The first occasion was on May 22, the day after he submitted a public records request for Nora Powell’s communications related to a government issue.

State police said it’s a “clear violation.”

Audie Barber, who ran against Powell in the May primary, had his data run three times, including twice by Powell’s stepson.

“It was about 9 p.m. when I was on the podcast,” Barber said. “The next morning he ran my criminal history.”

Beach, the city’s HR director, also ran against Powell. She only got curious after hearing Barber’s and Bilbrey’s story.

An officer looked up her background twice on two days before the election.

“I believe I was looked up because I am a political opponent of Nora Powell,” said Beach, who said she’s had no traffic ticket or seatbelt violation to her name. “No, I’m a good little citizen. I haven’t done anything wrong.”

A nine-page federal lawsuit names Powell, the city, the police department, five officers by name as well as the Fraternal Order of Police. The five officers are Joshua Carrington, Chase Hunter, Justin Peters, Jon Powell and Brian Ashton.

Count one claims violations of free speech, due process, unreasonable search and invasion of privacy.

Count two claims violations of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

“It’s a huge abuse of their power,” Beach said. “It’s about abuse of the public trust. It’s not right. They shouldn’t be doing it.”

Barber believes it’s happened to other Muncie residents.

“I guarantee it, I guarantee it,” he said.

This is what Powell said on Aug. 6 when News 8 asked her about Bilbrey’s allegations:

“I was made aware one of those was my son. Of course, I don’t condone that. I didn’t ask for that. I wasn’t involved in any way, shape or form…I’m just going to say that I did not know about that beforehand. I found out about that months later.”

In a statement Monday, she said, “The allegations asserted against me are just that; allegations. I will aggressively defend against these baseless and groundless accusations and will demonstrate the complaint is without merit.”

Bilbrey isn’t sure if Powell directed officers to look others up or if they did so because they support her and felt some sort of obligation.

“Either one is a problem,” he said.

While Police Chief Joe Winkle has already put a memo out to the department reminding officers of the proper use of the computerized system called IDACS, the plaintiffs don’t believe any disciplinary action was taken against the officers.

In August, Winkle said his officers were retrained on when it’s legal to run a background check on an individual and had no further comment.

The lawsuit asks for compensatory and punitive damages.

Unless there’s consequences to your actions, there’s no impetus to change your actions,” Beach said.

News 8 left messages for both Mayor Dennis Tyler and Chief Winkle.

Mayor Tyler did not return those messages as of Monday night.

Winkle said he hasn’t seen the lawsuit yet but might be able to comment Tuesday.

The Fraternal Order of Police released the following statement:

“The Muncie Fraternal Order of Police is committed to protecting the rights of the citizens of the City of Muncie. We have reviewed the Complaint with our legal counsel and determined the allegations are frivolous and in bad faith.”