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Federal lawsuit

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Steve Bower files federal civil rights lawsuit claiming due process violations

A Taylor County sheriff’s deputy who has been on paid administrative leave since February 2017 while facing felony criminal misconduct in office charges, has filed a civil rights federal lawsuit against Taylor County.

On Monday, Attorney R. Rick Resch and John H. Bradley of Strang Bradley law firm in Madison filed the lawsuit in the US District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. The lawsuit names Taylor County as well as former sheriff Bruce Daniels and county information technology director Melissa Seavers. In February 2017, Steve Bowers released unsolved murder case files to the producers of “Cold Justice.” The county had been working with the true crime television show on another case, but Bowers was not authorized to release the additional case files.

Bowers had admitted to releasing the files and apologized to the sheriff for “failing to follow proper protocols in the handling of the information.”

Daniels had directed Seavers to search Bowers’ work email accounts for any communications with the Cold Justice staff. Under direction from Daniels, Seavers also gained access to Bowers’ private Dropbox account. The file storage application was set up using Bower’s sheriff’s department email. However, Bowers paid for the service on his own and considered it to be private.

According to the complaint, on February 28, 2017 Daniels had told Seavers it was not necessary to attempt to bypass the password, but on March 2, 2017 the complaint alleges that Daniels told Seavers to do what was necessary to access the Dropbox.

Seavers reset the password on Bowers’ work email and then used the “forgot password” function on Dropbox to gain access.

Information gained from accessing the Dropbox account was used by the Department of Criminal Investigation in filing felony criminal charges against Bowers.

Bowers and his attorney in the criminal case has challenged the legality of accessing the Dropbox account without a warrant. The federal civil rights case filed this week continues to do so referring to it as “an illegal search.”

In the course of the administrative investigation, in Nov. 2017, the county demoted Bowers and imposed a suspension without pay. Bowers remained suspended with pay pending the outcome of the felony charges.

In June 2018, Bowers was called to work by the county due to the county being short-staffed in the buildings and grounds department. From June 4 to June 15 he was ordered to report to the buildings and grounds to work on county maintenance projects.

The complaint asserts this was in violation of the collective bargaining agreement with the Wisconsin Professional Police Association.

According to the complaint: “Under the supervision of Director Ludwig, the County ordered then Deputy Bowers to not wear his uniform; ordered him to scrape and repaint county buildings; ordered him to rake and remove straw, sawdust, and cow excrement; ordered him to work outside of bargained-for scheduling shifts without appropriate compensation; and failed to provide him with appropriate protective gear. The county, through the orders of Sheriff Daniels, did this to retaliate against, and to humiliate, Sgt. Bowers.”

The complaint spells out the following three counts: Illegal search under Bower’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and a violation of his 14th Amendment right to due process.

For this Bowers’ attorneys demand: “actual or compensatory damages against Defendants Seavers and Daniels, and because they acted maliciously, wantonly, or oppressively, punitive damages, plus the costs of this action, attorneys’ fees, and such other and further relief that the court deems just and equitable.”

Illegal seizure, again asserting violation of Bowers’ Fourth Amendment and 14th Amendment rights for not having a warrant to access the Dropbox account.

Depravation of due process rights for forcing Bowers to report to the buildings and grounds supervisor, which the complaint says is a violation of the union contract.

According to the complaint, “The county’s collective bargaining agreement with the Wisconsin Professional Police Association Law Enforcement Employee Relations Division creates rights for sheriff deputies, including then-Deputy Bowers, which can’t be taken without due process.”

According to the complaint, the contract spells out work schedules and the rate to be paid when they are working outside their rate of pay as well as the county providing uniforms. The complaint states, “Defendant Daniels intentionally deprived Bowers of his due process rights, which were created by the collective bargaining agreement, to punish and humiliate Bowers.

The complaint continues asserting that the alleged violations caused Bowers injuries, mental suffering, anguish, fear, humiliation, reduced pay, and expenses.

Bowers is calling for a jury trial in the civil case and the complaint notes that because Daniels and Seavers were acting in their capacity as county employees, state statues 895.46 requires the county to pay any judgment for damages.

In addition to compensatory damages, the suit also seeks punitive damages against the defendants.