Alleges civil rights violations

A Dewey Beach activist has filed a federal lawsuit against the Town of Dewey Beach, Mayor TJ Redefer, Dewey Beach Police Sgt. Cliff Dempsey and former Dewey Beach Audit Committee Chairman Larry Silver.

The plaintiff, 57-year-old Jeffrey C. Smith, has been a part-time Dewey Beach resident for over 20 years.

Smith founded Dewey Citizens for Accountability in 2017, shortly after Redefer was elected. One of the watchdog group’s primary purposes is to hold the town and the police department accountable for materials received through a federal military surplus program.

The lawsuit stems from an August 3, 2018 incident that followed a Dewey Beach audit committee meeting where two members resigned after reviewing an accounting firm’s limited report of the police department’s involvement in the surplus program.

The report was labeled “draft,” but multiple copies were available and all those in attendance had access to it, including two reporters who left the meeting with copies. When Smith attempted to take a report home, he was confronted in the parking lot by Silver, the audit committee chair, who demanded Smith return the report and, according to the lawsuit, unsuccessfully attempted to “rip [the report] out of his hands.” The two exchanged words before Smith got into his car, at which point Silver bent Smith’s license plate in an attempt to remove it.

But Smith, not Silver, was charged with a crime. The police arrested him for theft of the report and disorderly conduct. Ultimately, the Delaware Department of Justice declined to prosecute the case and the charges were dropped.

Stephen P. Norman, of The Norman Law Firm in Dagsboro, represents Smith. The lawsuit consists of six allegations against the defendants.

Three allege violations of Smith’s civil rights: First Amendment retaliation, unlawful detention and malicious prosecution. According to the lawsuit, the steps taken against Smith were at least partly in response to his activism and criticism of government.

“The adverse actions of Silver, the mayor, and Dempsey caused plaintiff to suffer an injury that would likely chill a person of ordinary firmness of resolution from continuing to engage in that activity,” states the complaint.

The lawsuit cites “false material statements” regarding the parking lot incident from Redefer and Silver, which were used in Dempsey’s warrant for Smith, and the omission of other statements by Dempsey himself. These lies and lies of omission, Smith alleges, were the only reasons police had to arrest him.

The counts against Silver include use of excessive force and battery. A Monell claim is brought against Redefer, who is described as the “final policymaker” of the town. A Monell claim is a claim against a government entity that employs the person alleged to have committed a civil rights violation.

“The mayor’s objective as final policymaker for the town was to silence critics of the [surplus] program,” states the complaint.

Smith is seeking punitive damages “in an amount sufficient to punish defendants and discourage them and others from engaging in similar conduct in the future.”

“There is no monetary reward to myself, whatever the outcome,” Smith said. “All resources will stay in Dewey for the betterment of the town.”