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Woman Sues Riviera Beach for Alleged Harassment by Police (UPDATED)

A Riviera Beach woman is suing the city in federal court for an incident in December 2009 when she claims Riviera Beach Police officers grabbed her, accused her of being a mental patient, kicked down the door, unlawfully entered her home without a warrant, ripped off her pajama top, caused her to hit her head, removed her from her home with her breasts exposed, and drove her off to jail.

She was charged with resisting arrest and misdemeanor battery on an officer. The State Attorney's Office finally dropped both charges in January 2011.

The woman, Colette O'Neill (formerly Colette Spears), claims false arrest and violation of civil rights in a lawsuit filed this week against the city and the two police officers allegedly involved, Lt. Reno Wells and Sgt. Joshua Lewis. 

In perhaps the most disturbing of the many allegations against the officers, O'Neill says that while still in her nightclothes, she asked the officers demanding entry to her home if they had a search warrant.

"We don't need one. We're the Riviera Mafia," she remembered them replying, according to the complaint.

O'Neill also claimed she suffered a fractured vertebra from her physical altercation with Wells.

Attorney Benjamin Bedard of West Palm Beach is representing both the city and the officers. O'Neill's attorney is C. Edward McGee of Fort Lauderdale. The City Attorney's Office redirected a request for comment to Bedard. We have calls out to both attorneys and will update with comments and further information from them.

This isn't the first time Riviera Beach police have met tough allegations -- a feature story by New Times' Lisa Rab from last year details some signs of corruption, and a number of accusations of police brutality have come up for review. Activist Fane Lozman, suing the city for towing away his floating home (he claims police officers threatened him during some of his many hostile encounters with them), just won a hearing by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Update: O'Neill's lawyer, McGee, explains that the city did not respond to or deny the charges contained in his June 2011 letter to the mayor's office warning of the lawsuit. State court requires a six-month wait between sending such a letter and taking legal action; once those six months were up, rather than answer the charges in state court, the city elected to move the case to the federal court for reasons we don't yet know.

McGee says that defendants are allowed certain legal protections and that the burden of proof rests on the plaintiff. That's why her criminal case was dismissed, he says, and why now the tables have turned and the burden of proof is on her to show that police did, in fact, act improperly. Asked how we're to be sure his client isn't making up the story (an unsettling but not uncommon accusation in stories like these), he says, "You have to explain how she suffered a compound fracture of her spine... when she was not the subject of any criminal activity at all and police entered her house without a warrant."

There's also the phone call to her friend Colette Richards while the police were present: McGee says he has sworn testimony (originally provided to O'Neill's defense attorney) from both O'Neill and Richards, and Richards has provided her phone billing records to back up the claim that a call was made while the officers were present.

This should be an interesting case, even if the city continues to remain mum about what happened as the lawsuit plays out. O'Neill was referred to McGee by her original defense attorney, who apparently believed her claims of false arrest and violated rights were egregious enough to merit action.

Here's the federal complaint (scroll down to "factual allegations" for O'Neill's version of what happened) as well as a prior letter from her lawyer to the city's mayor, offering to discuss an out-of-court settlement.
Colette O'Neill complaint
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Stefan Kamph
Contact: Stefan Kamph

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