The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today announced the settlement of a federal lawsuit against Pawtucket city officials on behalf of five firefighters whose personal lockers at the fire station were searched by police without their knowledge or consent. The conclusion of this lawsuit affirms that the search was unlawful, violating both the firefighters’ constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and a state law protecting privacy.

The unlawful searches took place in September 2023 after Pawtucket police officer Mario Comella sought and obtained a search warrant for a car owned by firefighter Patrick White based on a complaint that White was illegally transporting firearms from the vehicle. The search led to White’s arrest for firearms violations. The warrant did not authorize a search of White’s fire station locker, much less those of any other firefighters, nor was there any allegation that other firefighters were involved at all in White’s alleged illegal activities. Nonetheless, the police, with the approval of Fire Chief John Trenteseaux, searched the plaintiffs’ personal lockers without their consent one day when they were away from the station.

Personal lockers are housed in a separate “residential” area of the fire station where the firefighters keep their personal items while they work shifts which can be as long as 24 hours. The consent judgment filed today by the parties, and awaiting approval by the court, declares that the search of the plaintiffs’ personal lockers without a warrant violated the firefighters’ right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures under both the U.S. and state Constitutions and also the R.I. Right to Privacy Act. Additionally, under the consent judgment, the city has agreed to pay $1,000 in damages to each of the plaintiffs, and $59,163.09 in attorney’s fees to ACLU of RI cooperating attorneys Danilo Borgas and Richard Sinapi.

The plaintiffs in the case are firefighters Noah LeBlanc, Stephen Garlick, Manuel Benevides, Scott McDonald, and Steven Como.

Lead plaintiff LeBlanc said today: “The unlawful search of our personal lockers was a clear violation of our Fourth Amendment rights, and today’s settlement affirms that no one is above the law. This outcome serves as a reminder of the importance of respecting privacy and the protections guaranteed by the Constitution.”

ACLU attorney Sinapi said: “The Fourth Amendment establishes a right to personal privacy in our papers and effects and any place where we have a reasonable expectation of privacy.  Along with freedom of speech, it is one of the two fundamental pillars upon which a democracy depends and without which it cannot exist.   The settlement of this case not only vindicates each Plaintiff’s right to privacy, but it also establishes a precedent that safeguards this fundamental freedom for all.”

Attorney Borgas added: “We are proud to have stood by these firefighters in defending their constitutional protections and commend them for standing up for their rights. We hope this case serves as a powerful reminder to all public officials of their duty to uphold the law and protect the freedoms enshrined in our Constitution.”

The consent judgment will take effect once formally entered by Judge Mary McElroy.