Cabaret owner claims constitutional violation
By Elise Franco
and John W. GOODWIN JR.
Go Go Cabaret owner Sebastian Rucci is now looking to reveal — and end — a Mahoning County practice that he said has led to what he believes is more than 67,000 illegally issued arrest warrants.
Rucci and Atty. James Vitullo filed a class-action lawsuit claiming county clerks in Austintown, Beaver, Boardman, Goshen, Green, Jackson, Milton, Smith and Springfield townships have issued 67,474 warrants against people without probable cause, a violation of their constitutional rights.
It was filed on behalf of nine women — Shannon Graves, Michelle Benner, Amber Sexton, Nikki Montecalvo, April Ellis, Amanda Wallace, Erica Jackson, Mary Pratt and Trisha Narkum — who are or were employees at the Go Go Cabaret in Austintown, owned by Rucci.
Rucci is under indictment by a county grand jury on an array of charges involving the club. He said, however, he doesn’t see a conflict of interest with the new lawsuit and the case against him.
“It’s only a conflict of interest if you’re [county Prosecutor] Paul Gains and you want to violate everyone’s rights,” he said. “I’m zealous about this because I’ve been attacked in the past, and I’m [upset]. But that doesn’t mean I’m not correct.”
Rucci and Vitullo also said the jurisdictions have been allowing clerks, who are not trained in determining probable cause, to sign those warrants as a matter of routine.
Margery Koosed, professor of law at the University of Akron, said however, that Ohio Criminal Rule does, in fact, allow clerks of court to sign arrest warrants.
Rucci said he began to have concerns about warrants a year ago while doing research for his own criminal case.
The matter has been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge David D. Dowd Jr.
The suit also seeks to include any person charged with a misdemeanor or felony offense in the four county courts since Dec. 14, 2009.
Rucci said 44 specific cases are cited in the lawsuit. Many, though not all, involve women from his club.
“The first thing that hit me while researching my [criminal] case is that none of these arrest warrants had affidavits,” he said. “You’re right, these dancers are out there front and center with this. But the real thing is, there are a lot of people in this Valley who have been damaged.”
Gains said he looked over the suit but would not comment on it. He did say the county will address the matter in court.
Koosed said probable cause can be in a variety of forms, including a person sworn under oath or a witness statement to a police officer.
“The finding of probable cause may be based upon hearsay, in whole or in part, provided there’s substantial basis providing the source is credible and believing there is factual basis for the information furnished,” she said.
Rucci said arrest warrants out of the four county courts — located in Austintown, Boardman, Canfield and Sebring — don’t include any supplemental documents that could be used to prove probable cause.
“Look at how the Feds do things. They do things correctly,” he said. “They’ll have documents 12 or 13 pages long with the facts attached to the warrant.”
“We are trying to say that the county has been issuing charges against its citizens for at least the last 10 years in violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects against illegal search and seizure,” Vitullo said.
Both attorneys said the lawsuit states that clerks no longer be allowed to sign warrants that include only an officer’s conclusion that a crime was committed.
Koosed said Ohio Criminal Rule 4 states an arrest warrant can be signed by a judge, magistrate or clerk of courts as long as a substantial basis for probable cause is presented.
“It appears for this portion of the rule that the clerk could legally issue the warrant,” she said.
Vitullo said, ultimately, the suit could lead to thousands of convictions being overturned.
Vitullo added the suit is by no means claiming that those arrested are all innocent, but, he said, the process to determine if the individuals should have been arrested in the first place is flawed.
He and Rucci have asked the court to order the county and the political subdivisions to stop processing arrest warrants in the manner described in the lawsuit until the issue is heard in court.
“I’m expecting the judge to grant the injunction. I don’t think there’s any defense to this,” Rucci said. “I don’t think they could produce one document that wouldn’t be defective since [Gains’] time in office.”