$550,000 Verdict After 58 Year-old Woman Tased

Breaking news out of federal court in South Carolina, where a federal jury has just awarded a $550,000 verdict against a former Richland County Sheriff’s deputy, as well as the sheriff’s department itself.

Here are the relevant case documents, including the complaint, jury instructions, verdict form, as well as the full deposition transcript of one of the officers:

Virginia Jury Awards Damages Against Officers for Civil Rights Violations

Today’s video is about Matthew Souter, who owns a farmhouse in The Plains, Virginia. He ended up being unlawfully arrested and tased by police officers in his front yard. Back in November of 2018. He rented a bedroom and bathroom in his home to Melissa Johnson. Following a dispute about her cat and an electric hotplate, she went to a local court and obtained an ex parte Emergency Protective Order (“EPO”) against Mr. Souter, which restricted him from “acts of violence, force, or threat of criminal offenses resulting in injury to person or property” of Johnson.

The next day, November 10, 2018, Johnson called the Fauquier County Sheriff’s Office and reported that Plaintiff had violated the EPO by terminating the electric and water service to her bedroom and bathroom. She spoke with a deputy who took her complaint and classified it as a “civil matter.” Not satisfied with that, she called again later the same day. This time she spoke with a different deputy, who was dangerously incompetent. He ended up applying for an arrest warrant against Mr. Souter, alleging a violation of the EPO. There in fact was no violation – nor any reason for him to believe that Mr. Souter had committed any crime. But, he obtained an arrest warrant. 

This deputy and his supervisor then traveled to Mr. Souter’s home with an arrest warrant. The deputies seized Mr. Souter. I spoke with Mr. Souter on the phone and he denies resisting this arrest. However, in a subsequent ruling, the federal court wrote that it was undisputed that he resisted arrest. This is what the Court found, specifically: “Plaintiff resisted arrest and did not permit the officers to handcuff him. The officers then wrestled the Plaintiff to the ground, while Plaintiff continued to resist the officers. McCauley then used a taser to subdue the Plaintiff. After Plaintiff was tased, the officers were able to handcuff the Plaintiff.” Mr. Souter was tased multiple times and was bleeding. He was taken to a local hospital emergency room. 

The officers subsequently charged Souter with the underlying EPO violation, as well as attempted fleeing from a law enforcement officer. The EPO charge ended up being dismissed by the prosecutor, and he was found not guilty of the fleeing charge following the criminal trial. 

Then Souter filed a federal section 1983 civil lawsuit. Here’s the complaint his lawyer filed:

Fast forward in the litigation, and something pretty unusual ended up happening. The federal judge – Judge Ellis – in the Eastern District of Virginia, not only denied qualified immunity to the officers, but granted summary judgment in favor of the Plaintiff. That means that the Court found that Mr. Souter’s civil rights were violated, as a matter of law, and that the only issue for the jury to decide is the amount of money damages to be awarded. 

Why did the officers lose qualified immunity, as well as the opportunity to even oppose liability in front of the jury? In short, because they acted such utter incompetence. The Fourth Amendment protects against citizens being unlawfully arrested by law enforcement. An unlawful arrest is one that occurs in the absence of probable cause. Police officers can be held civilly liable for a false arrest “if it would have been clear to reasonable officers in their position that they lacked probable cause to arrest” Plaintiff for violating the cited law. Graham v. Gagnon (4th Cir. 2016).

The officers aren’t required to be actually correct in their probable cause determination, but rather reasonable in their probable cause determination. Here’s the Court’s full opinion:

In this case, all the officers knew is the allegation that the Plaintiff had cut off Johnson’s water and electric service. There was no reasonable basis for them to conclude that the Plaintiff had engaged in any act of violence, force, or threat, against Johnson. Thus, if they believed Plaintiff had done any of those acts, such a belief would have been clearly erroneous and unreasonable. 

The arrest warrant the officers obtained alleged violation of a domestic violence type of protective order, which did not exist in this case. No such domestic violence type of protective order had been issued against the Plaintiff, as would be obvious on the face of the actual EPO served on the Plaintiff. Moreover, even if Plaintiff had been served with a domestic violence protective order, cutting off water and electric do not constitute acts of violence, as defined in the EPO. Therefore, Plaintiff’s conduct could not have led a reasonable law enforcement officer to conclude that probable cause existed or that his arrest was proper. Thus they violated his constitutional rights when they unlawfully arrested him (and used force to effectuate that arrest) in the absence of probable cause. 

The illegality of Plaintiff’s arrest taints the defendant officers’ subsequent actions and renders them liable for Plaintiff’s excessive force claims. Under federal law, “the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable seizures bars police officers from using excessive force to seize a free citizen.” Jones v. Buchanan (4th Cir. 2003).

Let’s fast forward to the trial results. The jury ended up awarding a total of $50,000.00 in compensatory damages to Mr. Souter. Here’s the jury verdict form:

In my phone conversation with Mr. Souter, he was actually very unhappy with the verdict, both in the amount of $50,000.00, as well as the lack of a punitive damages award. He took issue with how the presentation of the damages claim was presented to the jury at trial.

For many reasons, people many times have unrealistic expectations on the value of damages in civil rights cases. At the end of the day, a jury decides these things. This can vary wildly depending on a number of factors, including the personalities of the parties, as well as the jurors themselves. I wasn’t at this trial, so I really have no idea what dynamics were present in the courtroom. But this illustrates one of the difficult parts of the job of a civil rights lawyer. Ultimately you have to convince a jury to award money damages. How do you do that? It can be very difficult, and sometimes emotion is all you have, assuming you can instill it in the hearts of the jurors. 

There’s a form instruction in section 1983 cases that says something to the effect of, if you find that the plaintiff’s civil rights were violated, you must at least award $1.00, even if you find that the plaintiff suffered no actual damages. The value of constitutional injuries can vary wildly based on who is on the jury. But there’s also a federal law, 42 U.S.C. Section 1988, which provides for an award of reasonable attorney fees following a finding of liability. That means that even if a jury awards One Dollar, there could potentially be an attorney fee award of six figures.