A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by a former Wilmington police official who accused the police department of engaging in racial discrimination and improperly collecting and using data from seized cellphones, including her own.
Judge Mark Kearney ruled Monday that federal law does not allow Fray Coleman to sue public entities for racial discrimination in connection with an employment contract. Kearney also said Coleman had provided no basis for invalidating a search warrant that police used to seize her phone last year as part of a cold-case murder investigation.
Coleman, who was a master sergeant and in line for promotion to lieutenant, left the department in January after an investigation into statements she made regarding the 2007 murder of a friend of her daughter’s biological father. According to the lawsuit, Coleman told investigators in 2007 that a man named Ramadan was a suspect in the murder and that she would not be surprised if someone killed him. After Ramadan Dorsey was fatally shot in February 2008, detectives again questioned Coleman, who told them she had no information about his death.
Last September, cold-case investigator Stephen Rizzo reopened the Dorsey case. After interviewing Coleman twice, he told her she had an "inconsistent recollection" of Dorsey’s killing. Rizzo allegedly accused Coleman of withholding information because she was among the top candidates for promotion to lieutenant.
Based on information provided by Rizzo, a special investigator with Delaware's Department of Justice executed a search warrant for Coleman’s cellphone in December, on the basis that she may have engaged in official misconduct and hindering prosecution. The warrant covered the time between her first interview with Rizzo on Sept. 30, and a second one Oct. 4.
Coleman was placed on administrative duty, but rather than report to her new assignment, she began a previously scheduled vacation two days early, according to court records. Defense attorneys say Coleman did not return from vacation but instead resigned. Coleman claims she was "constructively discharged."
Coleman claimed that, while on vacation, she began hearing from several officers about personal information that had been created and stored on her phone. The information included photographs of her nude and wearing lingerie, "intimate videos" of her with her husband and text messages discussing how she and other black officers were treated worse than white officers.
Law enforcement officials submitted sworn affidavits stating that they were unable to search Coleman’s phone, meaning they would have been unable to disseminate any personal information extracted from it. Defense attorneys noted that Coleman did not give investigators her passcode and that from the time her phone was seized in December until she filed her lawsuit in April, the technology required to search the phone was unavailable to law enforcement officials.
Coleman, meanwhile, alleged that the police department has a practice of allowing forensic examiners to download the entire contents of cellphones subject to search warrants and allowing the authors of the warrants to conduct "fishing expeditions" for any "damning evidence."
"Once the investigator finds useful information outside the scope of the warrant, they apply for an addendum or a new warrant to retrieve the information they already know exists," the lawsuit states.
Coleman also alleged that authorities sought the warrant for her cellphone only because of her race. Her complaint included a laundry list of incidents that she claimed show a "pattern and practice" of racial discrimination within the department.
The judge noted, however, that a provision of federal civil rights law cited by Coleman does not allow racial discrimination lawsuits against police departments and other municipal agencies. That provision is instead aimed at prohibiting private parties from using race as a basis to refuse to enter into contracts. Kearney also said Coleman had failed to show that the search warrant, or the process to obtain it, was deficient.
The judge gave Coleman until Sept. 28 to file an amended complaint that provides facts that might support a civil rights claim against individuals acting "under color of state law."