— The unlikely circumstance that the model number of an old 12-gauge shotgun, with the exception of a decimal point, matched the serial number of a stolen gun is at the center of a civil case recently filed in federal court.
Montevideo residents Warren Adams and Carrie Shelstad filed the civil lawsuit Feb. 28 in U.S. District Court in Minnesota. They accuse Montevideo Police Officer Carmen Beninga of violating their Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures by obtaining a search warrant based on a claim that Adams had possessed the stolen gun.
The search warrant led to criminal charges against them, which were later dismissed when a district judge ruled the search warrant void.
In the federal lawsuit, Adams and Shelstad allege that a defendant violates the Fourth Amendment when he or she "knowingly or intentionally, or with reckless disregard for the truth, includes a false statement in a search warrant application."
The shotgun that Adams possessed, and offered to sell along with 11 other firearms on an online auction service known as K-Bids, is a Sears Roebuck and Co. Model 14 583.1450. The representative of K-Bids brought the shotgun and others from Adams to the Benson Police Department to conduct a routine check to be sure none were stolen.
Benson Police Officer Michael Nadeau testified that he believed it was a Model 14 shotgun and that the numbers that followed — 583.1450 — represented the serial number, according to a memorandum in a Chippewa County District Court ruling by Judge Thomas Van Hon.
Nadeau entered the shotgun in the national search system as having the serial number 5831450 without the decimal point. He received an alert that it matched the description and serial number of a gun stolen in North Carolina.
The owner of the stolen gun told authorities in North Carolina it was a "Sear's-Roebuck/14 Shot G" with the number "5831450" listed in the column labeled "Serial Number."
The authorities in North Carolina also reported that the owner of the stolen gun described it as having a new custom finish, a blond-colored stock, and distinctive torch marks, according to the lawsuit. The gun Adams had offered to sell had a darker maple- or oak-colored stock, and no torch marks, according to the federal lawsuit.
In the Chippewa County District Court ruling to suppress evidence in the case, the judge noted that Nadeau testified that he and Beninga believed that the owner of the stolen gun had been mistaken in his description and had "mixed up" the guns.
Officer Nadeau also testified that he believed the model number was the serial number, and that the shotgun brought in by K-Bids was stolen, although he had no evidence that Adams thought it was stolen, according to the court ruling.
The model number was the only number on the shotgun, as it had been manufactured before serial numbers were required on shotguns, according to information in court papers.
In their federal lawsuit, Adams and Shelstad claim that the Benson police officer told Beninga about the "red flags" indicating that the shotgun was not the stolen gun. They also claim that Nadeau knew that serial numbers are found on a firearm's frame or receiver, and not on the barrel, where the shotgun's model number was found.
They also claim in the lawsuit that in Nadeau's "extensive experience with firearms, he doesn't remember ever seeing a serial number with a decimal point, such that the decimal point in 583.1450 made clear to him that it wasn't a serial number."
In his ruling, Judge Van Hon stated that Beninga did not include information about the discrepancies in the description of the guns when applying for the search warrant.
Also, her "misrepresentation to the Court that the number on the gun was 5831450 and not 583.1450 is problematic," he wrote in the ruling. "Beninga's failure to include the decimal point and describe the gun as it actually appeared was reckless," stated the judge.
"The Court does not find that Beninga acted intentionally to deceive the Court. However, the omissions and misstatements amounted to more than mere negligence, because Beninga had obvious reasons to doubt the accuracy of the information she reported," stated the district judge in finding the search warrant void and suppressing the evidence seized as a result of it.
The Montevideo Police Department used the initial finding that the gun was stolen and obtained a warrant to search the residence shared by Adams and Shelstad in Montevideo on Nov. 18, 2019.
The search led to criminal charges against the two for controlled substances, drug paraphernalia in the presence of a child, child endangerment, and certain persons not to possess firearms. Adams was also charged with receiving stolen property.
The criminal complaint in the case alleges that officers found methamphetamine and marijuana in the home, drug paraphernalia and firearms.
Judge Van Hon dismissed the charges against Adams and Shelstad in November 2020 for lack of probable cause after ruling the search warrant was void and the evidence seized as a result of the search had to be suppressed.
In the federal lawsuit, Adams and Shelstad ask for compensatory and punitive damages as a jury may decide, along with costs, interest and attorney's fees.
A response to the lawsuit has not yet been filed by the defendant.