ST. PAUL, Minn. – A federal judge makes pointed comments about race as he refused to dismiss a lawsuit against a Rochester police officer.
Michael Vernio and Kelli Gendron are suing Officer Samuel Higgins over an incident on August 19, 2019, that was captured on Officer Higgins’ body camera. In court filings, both sides almost entirely agree on what happened.
Officer Higgins was investigating a complaint about barking dogs when he walked up the driveway of Vernio and Gendron’s home, around a parked truck, and to the garage where Gendron was sitting. Officer Higgins asked Gendron if the dogs belonged to her. As they talked, Vernio came out of the home and joined the conversation.
At one point, according to court documents filed by both sides, Vernio wondered aloud why his neighbors had called police about the dogs barking instead of just talking to him and Officer Higgins responded with, “you have to understand, you’re a very loud boisterous black man.”
Vernio then said Officer Higgins was “a white man with a gun, and I’m afraid, to which Higgins replied “and you haven’t been shot yet.” Officer Higgins says Vernio then replied in a joking manner “I’ve got a witness, that’s why,” began to laugh and said “I’m just givin’ you…I’m just playin.”
In December 2019, Vernio and Gendron filed a lawsuit accusing Officer Higgins of violating their 4th Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and claimed to have suffered “mental and emotional pain, short- and long-term emotional injury, unlawful search, dignitary harm, discomfort, embarrassment, humiliation, fear, anxiety, apprehension, sleeplessness, a generally diminished sense of personal and family safety, increased fear of law enforcement” and more.
Officer Higgins filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit and U.S. District Judge Donovan W. Frank has now denied that motion and allowed the lawsuit to proceed. In his denial, Judge Frank citied the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, and George Floyd in Minneapolis and stated that Officer Higgins comments were “in the worst-case scenario, outright racist remarks” and are “entirely contrary to the constitutional promise of equal justice under law in the United States of America to which every citizen is entitled.”