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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 15, 2012

Federal judge OKs family’s lawsuit against state police in forensic scientist’s suicide case

NEW SCOTLAND – The family of a forensic scientist at the center of an improper evidence-handling probe who killed himself in 2008 can have their day in court.

On March 2, a federal judge ruled that part of a suit filed by the Garry Veeder family can now proceed against the investigators who they say searched their home, held family members improperly for questioning, and seized property, violating their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.

“The primary thing the family wants is for their story to be told. They were treated very severely by the State Police,” said Keith Schockmel, the Veeder family’s attorney.

In response to the decision, State Police spokesman, Sgt. Kern A. Swododa only comment was, “We are satisfied with these pretrial decisions in this matter.”

Garry Veeder, 58, hung him in his Voorheesville garage on May 23, 2008 after working for the State Police since 1977. He had just retired as a trace evidence lab technician from the State Police Forensic Investigation Center where he analyzed hairs, fibers, and other crime-scene materials. The state inspector general was still investigating Veeder’s work at the time of his death but eventually accused him of falsifying records and taking actions to cover up the fraud in about a third of his 322 cases.

Court documents describe events unfolding this way on May 23, 2008: Donna Veeder discovered her husband’s body and the family called 911. The Albany County Sheriff’s Office responded to the detached garage and began a death investigation

Plain-clothed State Police investigators and uniformed Troopers also responded to the scene a short time later. State Police eventually seized private property, conducted a room-to-room search, and questioned the home’s occupants, Garry Veeder’s wife and two children, over their alleged objections and without a warrant.

In court documents, police have argued they were given “implied consent” to enter the home, a completely separate structure from the garage building where the suicide took place. Once inside, police invoked the “in plain view” legal exception to seize items they believe showed signs of criminal activity and to justify a search.

In the ruling, United States District Judge Mae A. D’Agostino brought into question those assertions by refusing to dismiss the case. D’Agostino acknowledged sheriff deputies were responding to the direct invitation of the home’s owners, via the 911 call, but questioned if that permission extended to subsequent entry by State Police.

“It is reasonable to infer that the initial entry by Albany County Sheriff’s Department was lawful as it was the result of implied consent by the Plaintiff Donna Veeder,” wrote D’Agostino. The judge added, “However it is unclear at this time whether Plaintiff Donna Veeder’s implied consent extended to the New York State Police Investigators.”

The judge did not directly address the police claim that evidence was properly seized using the “in plain view” standard because officers first needed to justify why state investigators entered the home.

“First, the initial intrusion by the police officer must be lawful so that he can justify being in a position to make his discovery,” the judge’s decision read.

Schockmel, of Albany, said sheriff deputies and other emergency personnel who originally responded to the incident had already left the premises by the time a plain clothed state police investigator entered the home.

“At this time, Plaintiff Donna Veeder became startled by the presence of an unknown individual in her home, later identified as Defendant Steven Nutting, Investigator for the New York State Police. Defendant Nutting was not wearing a uniform,” Schockmel wrote in his complaint to the court.

By refusing to dismiss the accusations, the judge opened up the issue for future debate in civil court.

“Here, it is unknown whether Plaintiff Donna Veeder implicitly consented to allow investigators of the New York State Police to enter her home and conduct a room by room search, after the Albany County Sheriff’s Department had already left,” wrote D’Agostino.

However, the judge did note at the end of the decision that police “vehemently deny that the search of Plaintiffs’ house was without consent” and claim they have a consent form signed by Donna Veeder. The consent has yet to be presented in court.

According to Donna Veeder, after Nutting entered her home, he observed a notebook she was holding, the cover of which had a sticky-note on it addressed to her and her husband’s attorney. She discovered the book in the home shortly after the suicide.

Schockmel said Nutting demanded the notebook, which also had several sealed envelopes containing letters to family within. Donna Veeder refused to hand it over but was ordered to do so as part of the police investigation, said Schockmel. The complaint then claims that, soon after Donna Veeder hnded over the notebook, other officers appeared in the home to conduct a search.

The family also stated that officers prevented one of the children from contacting a friend on the computer and then confined the youth to a police vehicle under guard. Part of the family’s lawsuit claims the daughter’s rights were violated when police restricted her movement and forced her into a police car.

The judge wrote that the daughter’s “Fourth Amendment seizure claim is facially plausible….”

During this time, Donna Veeder called her attorney who advised her not to hand over the material and her lawyer then made a futile attempt over the phone to get police to halt their search. According to court documents, police then contacted their own legal representatives who advised them to continue their investigation and search.

Schockmel said, unless police could prove they entered the home by invitation, all seized evidence, the restraint of his clients, and a search of the home would be considered unconstitutional and a violation of their rights. In his complaint, Schockmel argued the home and garage were two separate structures and required separate invitations to enter each

He also criticized the “in plain view” assertion, asking how a notebook addressed to an attorney and a wife could be seen as portraying possible criminal activity.

He explained the “in plain view” exception basically allows police to stop observed criminal activity if they witness it in front of them. The rule can allow an officer to enter a home without a warrant for example if they’re at the door and spot evidence of a crime or a criminal-act taking place inside.

“Normally the cop sees a bag of drugs on the table or stacks of new electronic equipment in the corner of the room or something like that, but a notebook isn’t close to any of those. Unless there is a threat written on it or something like that but there wasn’t anything like that in this case,” said Schockmel.

While the judge allowed the civil case to move forward against three defendants — Nutting, Sgt. Robert Martin, and George Port — seven others mentioned in the complaint had the case against them dismissed. Schockmel said he intends to ask the court to reconsider its decision and keep some of the dismissed defendants in the case.

— By Tyler Murphy

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