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Jury rules in favor of Manassas Park police chief in officer’s lawsuit

Mario Lugo

A jury in Alexandria found in favor of Manassas Park Police Chief Mario Lugo and Captain Trevor Reinhart Tuesday in a lawsuit filed by former city police officer Regan Miller.

Miller’s suit claimed he was wrongfully terminated by the department in 2019 because he had angered the department’s leadership, but the defense posited that he violated department policy and was let go after numerous conduct issues at two departments.

The jury trial began May 4 at the U.S. Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in Alexandria. On the first day, Miller’s attorney, Clyde Smith, argued Miller had been targeted by Lugo and Reinhardt after resisting an order to turn over special badges commemorating the 2017 presidential inauguration Miller had designed.

The badges were originally commissioned by the department for officers to wear in early 2017, but Miller bought a set for himself. Lugo demanded that he return them, and Miller initially declined, although he eventually turned them over after a lengthy back-and-forth.

According to Miller and Smith, that incident and another involving an unreported car accident set off a retribution campaign against the officer that ultimately led to Miller being criminally charged for inappropriate use of a multi-jurisdictional police database and terminated from the department with due process.

On May 4, Miller, who started with the department in 2007, broke down on the witness stand, describing how his unemployment affected his relationship with his teenage children.

“I did nothing wrong, I did nothing illegal,” Miller told the court on the first day of the trial, describing feelings of “pure hatred” for Lugo and Miller, as well as the department. “They used their position of power to just destroy me … I was too ashamed to tell my kids.”

But Heather Bardot, the attorney representing Lugo and Reinhart, pressed Miller on the stand, pointing out several inconsistencies in what he told the defendants contemporaneously, his testimony and an earlier disposition.

In the incident for which Miller was charged in 2020, he had used a secure police database called Linx to find information on someone the department had no connection to and no open cases on. To justify the search, he had initially typed “homicide,” even though the department had no open homicides.

When Miller was confronted about the search by Reinhardt, he gave an evolving set of explanations. The criminal charges against Miller were eventually dropped, but Bardot argued that any superior would have cause for concern.

Additionally, Bardot pointed out that up until that incident, Miller had received relatively positive performance reviews from Reinhardt, and that Miller himself had even recommended the department to prospective officers. In her telling, Miller was terminated because of a potentially illegal database search.

While Miller was terminated by the department, he was eventually reinstated after several appeals, only to resign. He said he resigned because he was demoted and felt targeted.

Miller was asking the jury to award him more than $3 million in compensatory and punitive damages, saying he’d suffered both financial and emotional distress as a result of how his time with the department ended. He has applied to more than five different law enforcement positions and hasn’t been hired for any of them, positing in court that his termination was the reason he couldn’t find work as an officer.

Bardot suggested those problems might be due to his history as an officer. Miller’s attorneys declined to tell the jury about his time with the neighboring Manassas Police Department, where he worked from 1999 to 2007. During his time in Manassas, Bardot explained, Miller racked up numerous complaints and was found to have violated department policy on a number of occasions for inappropriate stops, unreasonable searches and more. He was terminated in 2007, and it was Lugo who helped him get a job in Manassas Park.

Ultimately, the jury was persuaded by Bardot’s arguments, finding that Miller failed to prove that he was “maliciously prosecuted” – in the court’s language – by Lugo and Reinhart.