A federal agent must face civil rights violation claims by the 74-year-old widow of a NASA engineer after she was arrested for trying to sell a paperweight with a rice-grain-sized piece of moon rock to raise money for her son’s medical bills.
The moon rock memorabilia was given to her late husband by astronaut Neil Armstrong and she sought to sell it along with a small piece of the Apollo 11 heat shield her husband was also given in recognition of his service to NASA.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that Joann Davis was entitled to pursue her claim of wrongful detention in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and the court rejected the agent’s claim of immunity for performing his job.
Davis, who met agent Norman Conley at a Denny’s in Lake Elsinore, was met by six armed officers who forcibly seized the moon rock paperweight, then detained the grandmother in a public parking lot for two hours, while she stood in urine-soaked pants, and was questioned by Conley as part of a search.
The panel held Conley had no right to immunity from Davis’ claim that her detention was unreasonably prolonged and degrading.
Davis’ husband Robert had been a brilliant engineer and ultimately manager of Rockwell’s Apollo project, according to the court. He received two items of memorabilia, two lucite paperweights, one with a fragment of moon rock and the other a small piece of the Apollo 11 heat shield. The family story is that Robert, who died in 1986, was given the paperweights by Armstrong in recognition of his service to NASA.
In 2011, Davis’ son became seriously ill and she was raising several grandchildren after the death of her daughter. Her son suggested she sell the paperweights to help out financially.
Davis contacted NASA for help to sell the items, but her email request went to special agency Conley, a criminal investigator in Florida. Conley, posing as a broker, contacted Davis. Over the course of several phone calls, he never told her the lunar material was property of the U.S. government and her possession of it could be illegal.
During their calls Davis expressed concern that her paperweights would be confiscated by NASA unless she could prove they were an actual gift to her late husband, the court said.
Ultimately, Davis agreed to meet Conley in Lake Elsinore, assuming it was to conclude the sale of the moon rock paperweight for $2,000. But instead she was arrested by armed federal agents and Riverside County Sheriff’s deputies.
During the interrogation, Davis claims she told officers she needed to use the restroom, but she was ignored. She was left in urine-soaked pants during the questioning in the restaurant parking lot, the court said.
The case was closed when the U.S. Attorney in Orlando, Florida declined to prosecute Davis. Her son died seven months after the incident, the court said.
Although Davis told Conley during his sting operation that she was financially strapped and wanted to sell the paperweights legally, Conley did not tell her possession of them was illegal, nor did he ask her to surrender them to NASA. Instead, he organized a sting operation, using six armed officers to seize a moon rock “the size of a rice grain from an elderly grandmother,” wrote Judge Sidney Thomas.
Case: Davis v. U.S., (Conley), No. 15-55671