Sullivan County mugshot from Michael Sullivan's June 2012 arrest.
A West Virginia man erroneously arrested last June at the Rainbow Family Gathering in Cherokee National Forest — with police believing he was transporting $90,000 worth of methamphetamine and liquid THC — has filed lawsuits against both Sullivan County and the companies providing drug field testing kits to law enforcement.
In November of last year Michael Sullivan, 60, was cleared of all charges in the incident by a Sullivan County grand jury. Documents filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Greeneville reveal he's now seeking in excess of $1.5 million for damages and fees incurred from the wrongful arrest.
As reported by the Times-News in December, field testing kits used by arresting officers of the Sullivan County Sheriff's Office allegedly revealed Sullivan was transporting meth and liquid THC. He was booked into jail, while nine different substances police seized from his vehicle were sent to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation lab.
Subsequent tesing would ultimately reveal Sullivan's materials were not narcotics.
Nevertheless, the initial arrest by the SCSO left Sullivan jailed for three weeks, he told the Times-News, as he was a perceived flight risk and unable to secure bond from a local agency. He claims the materials police seized — when he was stopped for an alleged seatbelt violation on Flatwoods Road — were simply cornstarch and an "aromatic oil" he had mixed to serve as insect repellant.
Sullivan, a self-described naturalist and herbalist who resides on an environmental co-op farm in Stumptown, W. Va., was attempting to attend the Rainbow Family of Living Light's national gathering for prayer and world peace. An estimated 7,000 people attended the event at its peak on the Fourth of July, congregating just east of South Holston Lake in the Cherokee National Forest.
Morristown attorney Troy L. Bowlin is representing Sullivan in both lawsuits related to his wrongful arrest.
"What is happening is that law enforcement are utilizing a field test drug kit which has been marketed and misrepresented as a valid test for whether or not something may or may or may not be a controlled substance," Bowlin told the Times-News. "In Mr. Sullivan's case, it incorrectly indicated was methamphetamine."
One of Sullivan's lawsuits identifies the defendants as Sullivan County Sheriff Wayne Anderson, two arresting SCSO officers, Sullivan County Mayor Steve Godsey and the county itself, as it is, "responsible for the training and actions of all its employees." The filing seeks in excess of $500,000 in compensation, punitive damages, fees and interest.
When contacted Monday Sullivan County Attroney Dan Street declined comment on the impending litigation, saying he had just received the complaint.
Sullivan's other lawsuit seeks in excess of $1 million. It's been filed against the he manufacturers and distributors of the drug field testing kit that incorrectly identified his materials as narcotics: Safariland, LLC, and its president, Scott O' Brien; Kanders and Company, Inc., principal owner of Safariland, and Kanders and Company President and CEO, Warren B,. Kanders; BAE Systems, Inc., who owned Safariland up until 2012; Armor Holdings, Inc., acquired by BAE in 2007.
"For years, defendants have publicly committed to manufacturing and selling reliable and accurate field drug test kits to law enforcement agencies," reads the suit. "Defendants have gained the trust and loyalty of law enforcement agencies around the globe. However, defendants have breached that trust."
The court filing goes on to state the drug field test kits are advertised and marketed as, "about 99% reliable." The lawsuit argues that's an intentional and reckless misrepresentation, "without regard to the rights of the general public."
"Our justice system has allowed these test its to be used, and Mr. Sullivan is not the only (victim)," Bowlin told the Times-News. "Hundreds of people have been incarcerated."