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Church of Universal Love and Music founder sues over drug raid

| Wednesday, April 25, 2012, 8:49 p.m.

The Church of Universal Love and Music has set the stage for another federal court battle.

The founder of the controversial music church alleges that the Fayette County Drug Task Force illegally raided a funk concert last year in a "callous and militaristic fashion" with an "overly broad" search warrant that violated the rights of attendees, according to a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.

It's the second lawsuit that church founder William D. Pritts has filed against county officials in the last four years.

The suit stems from a raid resulting in the arrests of 22 concert-goers on drug-related charges in August 2009 — five months after county officials agreed to pay Pritts $75,000 to settle his claim of religious discrimination after a prolonged zoning dispute.

Pritts, 47, contends county law-enforcement officials committed a "colossal overreaction" by violating the county's "obligation of good faith" regarding the settlement, which permitted the nondenominational church to hold 12 events a year on his Bullskin property.

Pritts is joined by 14 co-plaintiffs, who allege task force officers lacked probable cause to search them for drugs and paraphernalia because the authorizing warrant listed the wrong address for the church property and allowed officers to search "all persons present."

None of the plaintiffs was charged, but task force officers pointed guns at them and, in some cases, assaulted them when they "violently stormed the church during a peaceful religious event," according to the lawsuit.

Pritts has maintained that the church forbids the use of illegal drugs and his attorney, Gregory Koerner, contends that the arrests involved less than 3 percent of the 800 people who congregated for the "Funk Fest" concert.

County officials said they seized 76 bags of marijuana and 1,090 smoking devices as part of the raid.

After the raid, Pritts agreed to a permanent ban on outdoor concerts.

"Most of those who were arrested were charged with misdemeanor marijuana or paraphernalia possession," Koerner wrote in the suit. "... if the Fayette County police had served and executed a similarly broad warrant at a Dave Matthews Band concert at the (First Niagara) Pavilion, or any number of other events, they would likely obtain more illegal drugs and effectuate more arrests per capita than Fayette County was able to obtain as a result of their raid during the concert at the church."

Besides the task force, the suit names as defendants: Fayette County; then-District Attorney Nancy Vernon, who was elected a Common Pleas judge in November; Assistant District Attorney Mark Brooks; and task force officers Ryan Reese and Autumn Fike.

Vernon said last year that "any claims of malicious prosecution are meritless." Through a staffer, she declined comment yesterday.

Marie Milie Jones, the attorney who represented the county in the zoning case, did not immediately return a message requesting comment on the new lawsuit.

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