Eric Parsa and his mother in 2018. (Photo courtesy of the Parsa family.)

In January of 2020, several deputies with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office restrained Eric Parsa, a severely autistic 16-year-old, by sitting on him for over nine minutes while he was handcuffed in the parking lot of a laser tag facility after an autism-related meltdown and altercation with his father. 

Parsa became non-responsive at the scene, and was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

In the days immediately following Parsa’s death — ostensibly related to an internal use-of-force investigation — JPSO sought several search warrants for records in order to dig deeper into the teenager’s past.  Over objections from his parents, JPSO sought a wide range of records from Parsa’s school — including grades, a list of his teachers, his plan of care, and disciplinary reports and “all incidents of violence or documented behavioral reports.” They asked for any surveillance footage of Parsa that the school had, and specifically footage “relative to any outbursts or violent behavior.”

They also sought Parsa’s medical records — including all notes and documents related to his care — from his pediatrician. 

They even asked to be allowed into certain areas of the school where Parsa was cared for, for the alleged purpose of “generalized law enforcement inspection” and “acquisition of documentary photographs.”

Despite the requirement that warrants only be issued when there is probable cause for a crime, none of the affidavits for the warrants that were sought related to Parsa’s death identified a specific crime that JPSO was investigating. On some of the warrants, where a crime could have been listed, JPSO wrote “No charge at this time.” On others, it was left blank. 

Still, judges in three different parishes — Jefferson, St. Charles, and Orleans — signed off on them. 

Lawyers for Parsa’s parents in a wrongful death suit, along with several other civil rights attorneys who spoke with The Lens, say that the warrants were improper from a legal standpoint, and show that JPSO was not interested in holding their officers accountable, but rather shielding them from liability.

“What is the purpose of the police looking into all this information besides trying to come up with a post-hoc justification for why killing this child was appropriate?” said Nora Ahmed, legal director for the ACLU of Louisiana.

JPSO declined to answer questions from The Lens, saying the office does not comment on pending litigation. But in recent legal filings and depositions related to the wrongful death suit brought by Parsa’s parents, they defended the warrant requests as an attempt to gather as much information about the incident as possible and to corroborate statements made by JPSO deputies and Parsa’s parents. They said that the warrants were needed to determine whether or not the use of force by the deputies was “reasonable and necessary.”

(JPSO Sgt. Donald Meunier told lawyers during a deposition that the department was not investigating any crime that may have been committed by Parsa during the incident, given that he was already deceased, and that the “only crime that could have conceivably been considered at that point would be one by deputy or deputies against Eric Parsa.”)

But JPSO didn’t seek any search warrants related to the backgrounds of the officers, and has said that they never even suspected the officers of a crime. “There was no indication of wrongdoing on their part,”  Meunier said in his deposition when questioned about the use-of-force investigation. The investigation ultimately found that the officers had acted in accordance with JPSO’s use-of-force policy, and state law. 

In filings, lawyers for Parsa’s parents called the use-of-force investigation conducted by JPSO “inadequate, outrageous and unreasonable,” noting that it failed to document basic information about the deputies involved, such as their height and weight, and that investigators didn’t question deputies about their training or policies.  

Now, the lawyers are asking a federal judge to find that JPSO violated the Fourth Amendment when they sought the warrants into Parsa’s background, because there was no probable cause to obtain a criminal search warrant, which they also say violated state law. They called the warrants “absurd.”

(Parsa’s parents, through their lawyers, declined to comment for this story. Their lawyers declined to comment beyond what was in the filings.)

Professor Lucia Blacksher Rainier, who runs Tulane Law School’s Civil Rights and Federal Practice Clinic, said the warrants were “alarming.” 

“I’m unclear on why a judge would have signed them,” she told The Lens. “The only description of a possible crime was the one that was committed against the child by the police officers that allegedly used excessive force while restraining him.” She said it was unclear why Parsa’s medical and school records would have “any bearing on the crime that was committed by the police officers.”

Instead, she said that it looked to her like JPSO was instead attempting to use the warrants to dig up information that could shield themselves from civil liability in Parsa’s death. 

“They knew that they had violated the law and they were trying to find information they could point to that would somehow justify their violation of the law,” she said. “That is my guess.”

Ahmed, with the ACLU, agreed.

“What we’re looking at is a fishing expedition for the slightest bit of information that can deflect attention away from the allegedly egregious conduct of the officers in question,” Ahmed said. “And that strategy reeks of desperation, not justice.” 

‘We want everything. We’re asking for everything.’

Parsa was a regular at the Laser Tag facility, where several employees knew him by name and said they had personal relationships with him. But his severe autism could lead to outbursts, which the wrongful death suit described as involving the “involuntary, neurological flooding of the brain circuitry,” which could result in attempts at injuring himself and others.  

On January 19, 2020, in the parking lot of the facility, Parsa suffered from one of those meltdowns, hitting himself and his father near their parked car. He also bit his father — which the lawsuit describes as a “common behavior of a person with severe autism who is in crisis.”   With the permission of Parsa’s parents, one of the employees of the Laser Tag facility called the police.

The first JPSO deputy who arrived intervened between Parsa and his father, brought Parsa onto the ground on his stomach, and sat on him. When other deputies arrived, he was able to handcuff both his wrists together using two pairs of handcuffs, and also secure leg shackles. Eventually, another deputy switched places with the first one to continue sitting on Parsa’s back. 

At one point his mother told deputies her son was “being choked,” according to the filing.

After being held on the ground for just over nine minutes total, Parsa lost consciousness and urinated on himself, the lawsuit says. Only then did deputies stop sitting on him and turn him onto his side. He was transported to East Jefferson hospital, where he was found to be in cardiac arrest, and died.

Following Parsa’s death, JPSO’s homicide division took on the responsibility of doing an internal  investigation into his death and the use of force used by the deputies, as per department protocol. The lead detective put in charge of the investigation was Sgt. Keith Dowling. 

Dowling himself has been accused of using excessive force in the past. In 2019, a video of him dragging 20-year-old Mardi Gras parade-goer Jacobi Cage over a barricade and tackling him went viral on Twitter. (Another deputy, who flipped off Cage and knocked his phone out of his hand prior to Dowling’s use of force, was disciplined by JPSO for the incident. Dowling, however, was not.)

The day after Parsa’s death, Dowling sought warrants from Jefferson Parish magistrate commissioner Paul Schneider for hospital and EMS records for Eric Parsa and his father related to the incident that lead to Parsa’s death. Then, two days later, Dowling went back to Schneider to get a warrant to seize all medical records being kept by Parsa’s pediatrician. Schneider signed off on all of them.

Commissioner Schneider, through his office, declined to comment on the warrants.

That week, Dowling also went to the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office and had them apply for a sweeping warrant for Parsa’s school records at Destrehan High School, which is located in St. Charles Parish. That warrant was signed by 29th Judicial District Judge Timothy Marcel.  

JPSO did not inform Parsa’s parents that they were seeking the warrants, but after discovering that the school records were being sought, lawyers for Parsa’s parents filed a motion in court to quash the warrant. A hearing on the issue was held in early February of 2020 in front of Marcel. 

During that hearing, William Most, a lawyer for Parsa’s family, said that they were not objecting to an investigation, but questioned the legality of using criminal warrants — given that no specific crime was being investigated —  and the necessity of seizing school and medical records.

“We are not saying the sheriff’s office can’t investigate this death,”  Most told Marcel during the hearing. “We’re just saying they cannot use the compulsory process of a search warrant to do so. So they are 100 percent welcome, and the family encourages them, wants them, to investigate the death of their son, but they don’t think that … their son’s grades or his school records should be compelled in the absence of probable cause that a crime was committed.”

Most argued that any records that needed to be gathered related to the death investigation, if no crime was being alleged, should have been sought by the coroner — who has the power to issue subpoenas for records “relating to a deceased person which are necessary to classify the cause and manner of death.”

Still, Marcel found that a “death of a human being under circumstances where someone else could be culpable” rises “to the level of criminal acts,” and that he “found a connexity” between what was written in the affidavit and the information sought in the warrant. 

Marcel did not respond to an email from The Lens seeking comment.

In a deposition, when asked how Eric Parsa’s school grades were related in any way to the incident that lead to his death, JPSO Lieutenant Donald Meunier told lawyers that “​​they weren’t specifically,” but that he didn’t want school officials to be able to decide what they would provide. He said that it had been their “experience over the years that unless you are all-inclusive in your language, you allow others the opportunity to pick and choose what they disseminate to you.”

“We want everything,” Meunier explained. “We’re asking for everything.”

In his final report on Parsa’s death, Dowling said that he sought the warrants for his school and medical records because he believed they “would provide information to determine the patterns and nature of outbursts by Eric Parsa” and corroborate the statements made by Parsa’s parents.

His report does indeed rely heavily on those records. Several pages of the report document in detail Parsa’s history with autism, including his behavioral development, prescriptions, and special programs developed by his school to accommodate his disability. The report takes specific interest in what it describes as Parsa’s “violent tendencies,” describing several instances in which Parsa injured school staff and needed to be restrained. 

But Professor Blacksher Rainier, with Tulane, said that the purpose of gathering information for a general death investigation — without suspecting a specific crime — does not meet the legal standard for obtaining a search warrant. 

“You can’t get a search warrant for that,” she said. “You can’t get a search warrant for ‘maybe something happened.’ These are personal private records. And ‘maybe something happened’ is not the same as probable cause. And probable cause is what is required in order for a judge to sign a search warrant — the law is clear about that.”

Ahmed, with the ACLU, said that it was troubling that the judges didn’t cast more scrutiny on the affidavits for warrants, but also said that the affidavits were written in such a way that suggested that JPSO was considering criminal charges, but just failed to articulate them. 

“What we appear to have are judges that appear to have enormous faith in the police,” Ahmed said.  “But there also appears to be an art of misleading the judges in signing off on this.” 

WWL-TV warrant

The warrants for information on Parsa’s background weren’t the only questionable warrants JPSO sought following his death.

Investigators also went to the New Orleans Police Department to seek a warrant in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court for unaired WWL-TV surveillance footage related to the incident that lead to Parsa’s death. 

The portion of the affidavit officers were supposed to list a statute that they suspected of being violated was left blank, and where they were supposed to articulate probable cause, officers simply described the incident that led to Parsa’s death. NOPD did not respond to questions related to the warrant.

“Investigators are seeking the entirety of the video acquired and published by WWLTV in order to conduct a thorough and comprehensive review of said video footage pursuant to a death investigation,” the affidavit reads.

Melvin Zeno, who was serving as an Orleans Parish Criminal District Court magistrate commissioner on a temporary basis, signed the warrant. Zeno did not respond to calls and emails from The Lens.

It is unclear whether or not law enforcement ever actually sought or obtained the footage from the station. But Mary Ellen Roy, a lawyer for WWL, said that she felt the warrant was “absolutely not” appropriate in this instance. 

“A search warrant is a really intrusive kind of thing. The federal government has made clear that it is not appropriate for search warrants to be issued to news organizations just because law enforcement — or anyone — thinks that a news organization might have relevant evidence,” she said.  

Roy argued any effort to obtain potential evidence from a news organization should be done through a subpoena, which in turn gives the news outlet a chance to object. 

”In Louisiana, very strict criteria have to be met even for a subpoena to a news organization to produce outtakes or raw footage,” she said. “Highly material and relevant to a particular issue, there has to be no other alternatives to obtain information from the news organization, and so forth.” 

‘Consistent with any investigation conducted by JPSO’

JPSO has come under scrutiny for their failure to adequately track or probe deputies’ use of force, and following an investigation by ProPublica, the ACLU of Louisiana demanded a federal investigation into the department. 

It is unclear to what degree JPSO regularly uses criminal warrants to gather background information on people who have died in their custody without identifying probable cause for a specific crime. But in depositions, deputies described the warrants as routine. 

“The search warrants were obtained in a manner consistent with any investigation conducted by JPSO,” Meunier told lawyers.

Ahmed, with the ACLU, said she found that troubling. 

“We’re talking about using the criminal legal system as a sword against victims for alleged police misconduct,” she said. 

Blacksher Ranier said that the potential harm goes beyond use of force or in-custody death investigations. She said that if warrants are issued without probable cause for a crime, it could allow police to dig up private information any time they wanted to. 

“The obvious risk is this could be applied where the police want to find out a little bit more about any circumstance,” Blacksher Ranier said. “That would cause a great risk to the general public.”

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...