Plinton family sues UA, sheriff
Wrongful death lawsuit filed, federal civil suit expected today on behalf of former student
By John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer
The parents of Charles Theodore Plinton are suing the University of Akron and the Summit County Sheriff for the death of their son, claiming he was denied his constitutional rights.
A wrongful death civil suit was filed Thursday against the university and two former UA police officers in the Ohio Court of Claims in Columbus, which handles civil lawsuits filed against the state and its agencies.
A federal civil rights suit naming the university and Summit County is expected to be filed in U.S. District Court in Akron this morning.
Charles Plinton was pursuing a master's degree at the University of Akron when drug allegations in 2004 resulted in his suspension, even though he had been acquitted by a trial jury.
He took his own life last December.
Akron attorney Robert Meeker, who represented Plinton in the drug trafficking case, has joined civil rights lawyer Ed Gilbert to bring the lawsuits. The federal suit seeks several million dollars in punitive damages, attorney fees and other relief; the wrongful death action does not specify how much money is sought.
Neither the university nor the county had seen the lawsuits Thursday and their representatives declined comment.
``I feel like I'm going on a long journey and I don't know how it's going to end,'' said Charles Plinton, the deceased student's father.
The elder Plinton knows that it's likely defendants will raise alternative explanations for his son's suicide, including a police report indicating that his son was having girlfriend problems and had failed a promotional test for his job. His son also had spoken in the past about attempting suicide.
His parents are ready for that.
``I feel that what was done to him was so wrong, I just had to go this route,'' Plinton said.
The lawsuits also allege that the Summit County Drug Unit relied on a false identification of Plinton as the suspect who sold marijuana to a confidential informant.
That led to false police testimony to secure an indictment, and a conspiracy to produce a false confession from Plinton a week before trial, the suit says.
The result was a ``sham hearing based on inappropriate evidence'' before a UA hearing board, according to the state lawsuit.
In a 3-2 vote, the UA board concluded Plinton was ``responsible'' for ``dealing drugs to a confidential informant.'' The decision came after Plinton was acquitted on drug trafficking charges in Summit County Common Pleas Court.
``The defendants' actions were so extreme and outrageous as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency and was such that it can be considered as utterly intolerable in a civilized community,'' according to the state suit.
The federal suit also alleges UA denied Plinton his constitutional right to due process, specifically identifying the university's burden of proof requirement in determining whether a student has violated the conduct code.
Out of 12 Ohio universities surveyed by UA, only UA used the ``substantial'' burden. Most use the higher standard of ``more likely than not.''
An independent commission formed in response to the Plinton case has recommended the university adopt an even higher standard of ``clear and convincing'' evidence in serious cases.
``Although I believe the recommendations are a step in the right direction, I remain concerned,'' Meeker said.
Meeker, who stood by Plinton during his hearing, believes the process was unfair because he wasn't allowed to speak for Plinton. Also, a police officer was allowed to summarize the testimony of a confidential informant who was not present.
Akron City Council president Marco Sommerville, who brought the Plinton story to public attention at the last city council meeting of 2005, was disappointed with the commission also.
``The commission probably did what they were asked to do, but it didn't go far enough,'' he said. ``The verdict is still out on the University of Akron in the handling of the Charles Plinton case, as far as I'm concerned.''
This touches on so many issues that are at the heart of the war on drugs.
People are guilty even when proven innocent, they can be called guilty based on the accusations of people with no credibility, they can't do anything about it, no one takes responsibility for the consequences of the drug war.
I think it will be interesting to see what the University of Akron does in the coming month about this and what the response to their action is.