Federal judge dismisses councilwoman’s lawsuit claiming illegal search by Southport Police Department
Editor’s note: The contents of this story have been edited.
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – A judge dismissed a federal lawsuit against Southport police accusing the department of illegally searching a councilwoman’s home.
On Feb. 25, Judge Tanya Walton Pratt summarily dismissed the case from Councilwoman Shara Hostetler, who alleged a search of her home just before the 2015 primary election was illegal.
The suit named the city of Southport, Police Chief Tom Vaughn and Detective Sergeant Jason Swanson. Vaughn remains chief of the department while Swanson was found dead on March 5.
Hostetler claimed Vaughn directed Swanson to undertake the search of her home on April 25, 2015, two weeks before a Republican primary election in which she was the main GOP challenger running against the incumbent Southport Clerk-Treasurer Dianna Bossingham, the supervisor of Vaughn’s wife.
In her lawsuit, the councilwoman said Vaughn had received a tip from Bossingham’s campaign manager that Marc Hostetler, the father of her child, “was impersonating a police officer again, and that he was carrying a firearm.”
Marc Hostetler was a former Southport police officer, had pleaded guilty to a felony battery charge in 2009, and was issued a Southport Police badge and uniform identifying him as a certified chaplain while he continued to do security work.
Shara Hostetler claimed in the spring of 2015, less than two months before the primary, Vaughn assigned Swanson, an unpaid police volunteer who had been on the job for not quite a week, to investigate the tip.
Swanson determined Marc Hostetler divided his time between his condominium and Shara Hostetler’s home and “sat in his car and surveilled both locations several days a week for approximately a month,” according to a court document. While Swanson admitted never spotting Hostetler impersonating an officer, “On at least three occasions during his surveillance Swanson observed Marc carrying a handgun on his left hip. Marc denies that he ever carried or possessed a firearm of any type during this period.”
Instead of arresting Hostetler when he claimed to have observed the weapon, Swanson sought a search warrant for Shara Hostetler’s Southport home. During that search, and a subsequent search of the former officer’s condominium, Swanson did not find a weapon on Hostetler but did discover police items and “a small loaded pistol under a mattress, which belonged to Shara.”
Swanson arrested Hostetler for carrying a handgun without a license, though the Marion County Prosecutor later dropped the charge after a successful motion to suppress evidence from the two searches. Swanson’s recommendations to charge Hostetler with impersonating a police officer and theft were declined.
“Shara believes that Chief Vaughn used Swanson as a pawn to procure Marc’s arrest to embarrass her and boost the prospects of his wife’s boss, Dianna Bossingham, winning the election for Clerk-Treasurer,” reads the finding of Judge Pratt, who noted Hostetler heard rumors from neighbors in the run up to the election that she was “harboring a fugitive.” Shara lost her election by 17 or 18 votes.
What followed was the filing of the federal lawsuit by Hostetler and recriminations and divisions on the council and in Southport city government that last until this day.
Hostetler sued the city, Vaughn and Swanson, “asserting claims of illegal search, negligence, trespass, false arrest, defamation, malicious prosecution and intentional infliction of emotional distress.”
Vaughn and Swanson moved for dismissal from the lawsuit, claiming immunity while acting under authority of their office, that the chief was not involved in orchestrating the search, and a Marion Superior magistrate judge had signed off on the search warrant of Hostetler’s home.
Hostetler claimed Vaughn assigned the case to Swanson without informing the new detective of the political motivations in the probe and that he “turned a blind eye to Swanson’s investigation to maintain deniability.”
“Defendants argue that Chief Vaughn never gave any direction to Swanson after assigning him to the case, and that Swanson conducted surveillance and sought a search warrant on his own initiative,” reads the summary judgement, but, “the Court finds that Chief Vaughn was involved in the search of her home.”
While Shara Hostetler claimed that her Fourth Amendment right against illegal search and seizure was violated, the Court found that, “it was reasonable to Swanson to believe that a firearm could be found at (the councilwoman’s) residence where Marc spent a significant amount of time, and where he observed Marc carrying what he believed to be a firearm on at least three occasions.”
Pratt found it reasonable that the magistrate judge would issue a search warrant based upon such representations as “there was no reckless disregard for the truth or false statements…(t)here was clearly probable cause for the search of her home,” and she dismissed the illegal search and seizure argument.
The judge also found in favor of Vaughn’s and Swanson’s arguments that the case be dismissed based on their qualified immunity protecting them from civil damages as “there was clearly no established right which Swanson would have understood he was violating and no Fourth Amendment violation as there was no reckless disregard for the truth or false statements in the affidavit for the search of Shara’s home.”
The Court also found that Southport police did not defame Shara Hostetler in their comments to the community-at-large about the investigation
Hostetler’s lawsuit was filed during the months before the death of Southport Police Lt. Aaron Allan, allegedly shot to death by a man involved in a crash on South Madison Avenue in the summer of 2017, a point Vaughn raised during a council meeting a month later as he proposed a non-binding No Confidence vote in the councilwoman.
The council supported Vaughn’s proposal by a 3-2 vote. Since that time, Hostetler has led an attempt to publish basic Southport police statistics on her private Facebook page as the city refuses to provide that same data to the public in the interest of operational security.
Hostetler has indicated her lawsuit is at an end.
“Although I strongly disagree with the federal judge in the recent ruling for summary judgement on the civil case, I have decided against an appeal,” the councilwoman wrote CBS4. “One cannot, under the law, prove any officer’s affidavit or words were intentionally false or malicious, regardless of the truth. Although evidence exists for wrongdoing, the rules of evidence do not always allow that evidence to be presented to the court. Because of this and the sudden tragic and unexpected passing of Detective Swanson, and for the safety of my family, I have decided that an appeal is not the best option.”