NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A federal agent was illegally arrested in 2019 after criticizing a Louisiana sheriff’s office’s investigation of a still-unsolved shooting death, a federal judge has ruled.
Jerry Rogers Jr. filed a civil rights lawsuit in early 2020, claiming false arrest and imprisonment by members of the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office. In a ruling dated Friday, U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo ruled in favor of Rogers on two main claims in the suit, saying two sheriff’s office officials are liable for damages in the case.
A decision in Rogers’ suit against Sheriff Randy Smith remains pending, but Milazzo rejected Smith’s motion to throw out the case.
Rogers was arrested for “criminal defamation” after he criticized the investigation into the still-unsolved 2017 death of Nannette Krentel, found shot to death in the burned wreckage of her home in Lacombe. Rogers, an agent with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, had followed the case through news accounts, according to the court record. He sent anonymous emails to relatives of the victim, criticizing the investigation.
After an investigation, Rogers was arrested. The sheriff’s office said at the time that his emails contained false, defamatory information and hindered the investigation.
Milazzo on Friday ruled against two sheriff’s officials, Danny Culpepper and Keith Canizaro, rejecting arguments that they were immune from prosecution in Rogers’ arrest. The ruling noted that the local district attorney had advised that arresting Rogers on the criminal defamation charge would be unconstitutional, and that Louisiana’s criminal defamation statute was later repealed.
“Here, it is well-settled in Louisiana law both that a police officer is a public official and that Louisiana’s criminal defamation statute is unconstitutional as applied to public officials,” Milazzo wrote. “Indeed, prior to its repeal in 2021 the law was included in the Unconstitutional Statutes Biennial Report to the Legislature in 2016, 2018, and 2020.”
In refusing to dismiss one of the claims against Smith, Milazzo said Rogers had made valid arguments that his arrest was retaliatory, both because the arrest warrant didn’t identify a specific statute and because authorities arrested Rogers when issuing him a summons would have been sufficient.
Rogers sought an unspecified amount of damages in the case, which will be the subject of future court proceedings.
Chadwick Collings, an attorney representing the sheriff and his employees, said in an email that the statute under which Rogers was arrested was “valid and enforceable” at the time of the arrest, and that Smith would appeal the judge’s ruling.
Collings wrote that the sheriff also disagreed with Milazzo’s finding that it was the sheriff’s department’s duty to determine whether the statute used in Rogers’ case was unconstitutional.
“The Sheriff believes such questions are the sole province of the Courts, and there has never been a case before any Federal or State Court that stated a detective, as opposed to an elected official, is legally incapable of being a victim of criminal defamation,” Collings wrote.