Homeless Man Files U.S. Civil Rights Suit Against Police Officer Who Monitored Him On Facebook

Homeless Man Files U.S. Civil Rights Suit Against Police Officer Who Monitored Him On Facebook
Image: AP

Not all police are bad, but Facebook is the highway to surveillance hell, and cops are on it. In the latest story to highlight cop’s social media activity, a homeless resident of Los Angeles has filed a civil rights suit against the city and a police officer who is accused of conducting a several-year-long harassment campaign and actively updating a Facebook group on his progress.

The complaint focuses on LAPD Senior Lead Officer Sean Dinse, who’s named as an active poster in two private groups used by civilians and police officers, “Crimebusters of West Hills and Woodland Hills” and “Homeless Transient Encampments of our West Valley.”

According to the complaint, Dinse was an avid follower of plaintiff Rex Schellenberg, a physically disabled man in his 80s, whom Dinse reportedly referred to in a post as one of his “regulars.” (Other screengrabs show Dinse reporting to the groups that he was “very close” to getting Schellenberg into housing, and erroneously saying that Schellenberg suffered from drug addiction and mental illness, rendering him incapable of making “rational decisions.”)

Schellenberg claims that since 2017, Dinse and cohorts unlawfully seized his property and looked on as sanitation department workers raided it and accused him of “camping” in a park where he slept, forcing him to move. So in March 2019, Schellenberg purchased a van in which he could sleep and protect his belongings from police, namely, Dinse. The following month, Dinse found the van where it was allegedly “lawfully parked,” and had the vehicle impounded. Schellenberg was unable to afford the high impound fees and had to repurchase the vehicle a month later after it was sold at auction. Lo and behold, the van appeared on “Crimebusters.” A month later, Dinse once again showed up with a tow truck.

Image: Screengrab via Schellenberg’s complaint

Schellenberg claims that the city, with Dinse as its proxy, violated his Fourth Amendment right protecting him from the unreasonable seizure of property and breached his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process when seizing his vehicle without adequate notice.

Image: Screengrab via Schellenberg’s complaint

The suit names Dinse as an admin of “Homeless Transient Encampments”; while that’s not currently reflected on Facebook, recently-retired Senior Lead Officer Brett Rygh is still listed. (A private citizen founded both pages.) Dinse is an active Twitter and Facebook user in his official capacity as a Senior Lead Officer.

To be fair, an attorney for the pages’ founder Fern White sent the Los Angeles Times screengrabs of posts showing more empathetic attitudes from officers and residents, adding that mainly “the purpose of such posts is to document certain activity to pass on for evaluation and proper action.”

But Schellenberg’s attorney Carol Sobel notes that the pages’ founder has eluded in a post to a “private sub-group” for conversations about posts like one in which she (incorrectly) accused Schellenberg of illegally parking.

“If – and I say if – there are more directed discussions on that page about criminal activity directed at our client and other unhoused individuals,” Sobel told Gizmodo via email, “any First Amendment argument might fall to a criminal conspiracy. Without knowing what is on that private page, I could not say whether that is the case here.”

In 2018, Schellenberg sued the city for seizing essential property, including a laptop and a Section 8 voucher; the city denied those claims, arguing that it seized only materials that posed health and safety hazards. A settlement is set for later this month.

Senior Lead Officer Dinse told Gizmodo he was unable to respond to comment as the lawsuit has been filed against the city.