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:
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.
There’s a jury trial in Euclid, Ohio this week where Euclid police officer, Michael Amiott is being prosecuted for a use of force incident following the 2017 traffic stop of Richard Hubbard. Amiott is charged with two counts of assault and one count of interfering with civil rights. Cell phone video showed the officer repeatedly punching Richard Hubbard after he was pulled over for an unspecified moving violation.
Hubbard was accused of resisting arrest after allegedly refusing Amiott’s orders, and the ensuing struggle resulted in Hubbard being hit multiple times while on the ground. The criminal charges against Hubbard were later dropped, and while he suffered no permanent injuries, the city later agreed to a $450,000 settlement with both him and the owner of the car he was driving.
Following a 45-day suspension, Euclid Mayor Kirsten Holzheimer Gail fired Amiott from the police force, but an independent arbitrator reinstated him a year later. Nevertheless, Amiott was arrested and charged in Euclid Municipal Court in August of 2019 following further investigation, and his trial was subsequently delayed two years by COVID-19.
The entire trial has been live streamed on Youtube by WKYC and some of the testimony has been interesting. This is what we’re dealing with by the way, in the mission to obtain some accountability where citizens are violently victimized by the government.
Also, this isn’t his only excessive force incident:
I get asked all the time for an update on the Creepy Cops Search case out of Putnam County, West Virginia, where plain-clothes police officers from the sheriff’s department’s “Special Enforcement Unit” were caught on hidden camera literally breaking into my client’s home, sneaking in through the window, searching the inside of the house for non-existent drugs. To see footage of police officers secretly inside someone’s home, where there’s no criminal investigation, or even charges, and where there’s no legal justification, is scary.
This was actually my first Youtube video, uploaded January 15, 2020. The footage shows the drug task force officers searching Dustin Elswick’s house, including examining the ashes of his deceased friend, brilliantly believing them to be drugs. They also ran those ashes through field drug test kits, disabled an exterior surveillance camera, pulled Dustin’s guns out of storage for photographs, and generally ransacked and searched the place.
Until I uploaded the video two and a half years ago, they had no idea they had been caught on video. I first provided the video to federal prosecutors, who in turn provided the video to the FBI for investigation. I didn’t know this at the time, but the FBI agent tasked with the investigation didn’t investigate, but rather just tipped off the officers that I had a video showing them in Dustin’s house. I only found this out much later, after a lawsuit was filed and discovery was exchanged.
A federal civil rights lawsuit was filed on August 20, 2021 against the individual officers, as well as against the county for creating and allowing this drug task force to operate in the first place. The federal court denied Putnam County’s motion to dismiss the pattern and practice (Monell) claim, issuing a memorandum opinion explaining the basis for liability.
Right now the case is set for jury trial in federal court in Huntington, West Virginia on February 22, 2023. There were also two companion case lawsuits filed, on behalf of other plaintiffs, the Johnson family, as well as Mason Dillon, which are also currently pending and set for trial. However, this is the only one that was caught on video. The Dillon case is set for trial on January 18, 2023. The Johnson case is set for trial on January 31, 2023. As of right now they have not been consolidated with the Elswick case.
Discovery has been exchanged, so we now know a lot more. However, depositions have not yet occurred, having been delayed several times due to the defendants’ concerns over a renewed FBI investigation, following the disclosure that the initial FBI investigation was more of a locker room pat on the butt, than an investigation. I suspect that the current FBI investigation could be actually an investigation of the initial FBI investigation, but I have no idea as of right now. What I do know is that we are finally set for depositions of the officers to take place at the end of this month. It will be interesting to find out whether the officers will plead the Fifth Amendment. I honestly hope that they don’t. But either way, I already have their statements from the still-confidential internal investigation. So if they don’t want to answer questions, there are mechanisms in place for me to utilize their prior statements.
What I can tell you is that there is no good explanation here. There are some excuses and some finger-pointing. But there is no great defense here. I believe that it will be determined that some of the officers are more culpable than others. Which is why I hope that at least those officers will be willing to tell the story. It’s an interesting tale that resulted in the end of the Special Enforcement Unit, but not the end of the officers’ employment. Though there’s more to the story that isn’t out yet.
Remember, your home is your castle, and is the most protected place there is under the Fourth Amendment. Any search or seizure by the government that takes place in the home is automatically unconstitutional, by default, unless the government can prove otherwise, in the form of a valid warrant, or valid exception to the warrant requirement. There are only two exceptions recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court: consent and exigent circumstances. Consent must be voluntary. Exigent circumstances require something akin to an emergency situation.
Also, when it comes to consent, as I’ve explained previously, a landlord cannot authorize the government to search the residence of a tenant, as per the Supreme Court in the 1961 case of Chapman v. United States. This also extends to apartments, rented rooms within a house, and hotel rooms so that a landlord may not give the police consent to a warrantless search of a rented apartment or room.
These cases tend to speed up towards the very end, which is where we are now. So there will likely be a big update, or updates, very soon. We have a mediation scheduled in August, which is an opportunity for both sides to discuss potential settlement resolutions. In this case, which is a civil rights lawsuit, the potential remedy available to a plaintiff is money. So that’s where money will be discussed, for the most part. If that falls through, we’ll sort it all out at trial.
Some armchair legal quarterbacking following day 8 of the Kyle Rittenhouse self defense trial in Wisconsin. This is an important firearms related self defense case which illustrates the importance of attorney skill and tactics in jury trial advocacy. There’s been some surprising events so far in the trial, including the testimony of the defendant himself today. In fact, something shocking happened during Kyle’s cross examination which may itself be a constitutional violation. Join me to watch some of it and discuss…… Freedom is Scary Episode 80: