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Lawsuit filed against Martin County sheriff, former deputy over civil rights violations

Lawsuit seeks damages in excess of $75,000
Posted at 11:53 PM, Dec 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-09 08:14:59-05

STUART, Fla. — The Martin County Sheriff's Office is now facing a federal civil rights lawsuit.

Fourteen victims of former Deputy Steven O'Leary are involved in the complaint, saying they want more than just O'Leary to be held accountable for their false arrests.

Last week, O'Leary was sentenced to 13 years in prison for making dozens of false arrests based on fabricated evidence.

Attorneys Lance Richard and Jordan Wagner said they filed the lawsuit against Sheriff William Snyder and Steven O'Leary on Tuesday, which should be served to the sheriff this week.

"We filed this claim to really right some wrongs," Richard said.

The lawsuit is seeking damages in excess of $75,000.

Five of the 14 victims spoke in a news conference Wednesday announcing the lawsuit. They all spent anywhere from a few hours in jail to a few months in jail on bogus charges.

Bradley Martin was one of those victims.

He spent three months in the Martin County jail on charges of trafficking heroin when really the substance O'Leary claimed was heroin was laundry detergent.

Steven O'Leary sentenced to 13 years in prison
Former Martin County Sheriff's Office Deputy Steven O'Leary listens as he is sentenced to 13 years in prison, Dec. 2, 2021, in Stuart, Fla.

"He was facing a minimum of three years in prison with a maximum up to 30 years," Richard said.

His bond was set at $500,000, which he wasn't able to post.

Martin recalled the night of his arrest in 2018.

"A lot of disbelief. I didn't think it was actually happening until I was in jail," Martin said. "My job was taken from me. My social life was kind of ruined, and I did not look great at all in my family's eyes, so it's been rough over the last couple of years."

Dillon Felts spent 50 days in jail when all he had in his possession was over-the-counter headache medication.

"[In booking], at one point, the guy goes, 'Hey, get this. He said that it's aspirin, not ecstasy. You're looking at 20 years, buddy,'" Felts recalled.

The lawsuit aims to bring financial relief to victims like Samuel Palmieri, who said he has spent $60,000 paying for bond, getting his car out of impound, legal fees and going to therapy.

Wagner said the lawsuit also aims to shine a light on what they consider systemic problems in the agency and an environment that enabled behavior like O'Leary's.

"I think if you talk to the victims in this case, there were always other officers on the scene," Wagner said. "They were all belittling or high-fiving each other when they would arrest these individuals. It was an atmosphere where this behavior was encouraged, where arrests were encouraged for promotion. You know, maybe his direct actions may have been an outlier, but the atmosphere that produced it was not."

Snyder has said policy changes have been made since O'Leary's arrest and termination.

He released the following statement about the lawsuit:

Although it is not our practice to comment on pending litigation, I will say I stand behind the integrity and professionalism of my deputies. It is my hope that the community will recognize this case as outlier behavior and know that their trust in us is important to me, and paramount to keeping our community safe.