Beetle-Hunting Lawyer Held at Gunpoint by Police

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I couldn’t really improve on that original headline. The New York Law Journal reported today that a federal judge has upheld a verdict dismissing a lawyer’s civil-rights lawsuit against the Scarsdale police department for using excessive force while arresting him during a beetle hunt.

Harry Zirlin, 51, who is not only an attorney with Debevoise & Plimpton but also a nationally-recognized beetle expert, was hunting beetles in December 2002 in the woods near his home. Zirlin says he was carrying a pocketknife, which he uses to dig into dead trees to get the beetles out. A woman who was driving by saw Zirlin and stopped to report a “man in the woods with a knife.” Police were called, and they stormed the woods and arrested Zirlin at gunpoint, handcuffing him behind his back with his face to the ground, closer to his beloved beetles, perhaps, but far from the light of justice.

He can use that last part in his next appeal if he wants.

Police never identified the woman and she has never explained why she thought Zirlin was dangerous or who he was posing a danger to. Zirlin’s theory, since it was “around Christmas time” and he was alone in the woods, is that she thought he might be trying to commit suicide with his pocketknife. (My theory is that there’s apparently nothing 9/11 can’t justify.) Zirlin says he sued mostly to force a change in police tactics, saying that responding to such a situation with guns drawn could end up costing the life of an innocent person.

But Judge Charles Brieant of the Southern District of New York ruled that a reasonable jury could have concluded that, based on what the police knew at the time, police could have reasonably believed they were entering a hostile and dangerous situation. The judge noted that Zirlin is the “paradigm of a reputable citizen,” but found no reason to overturn the verdict. Zirlin says he will appeal.

NY Law Journal via – thanks to Deb Smith