A Surry County couple dismissed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the town of Kernersville and five Kernersville police officers last week, following a $110,000 settlement and a judge’s order that essentially validated their claim.
Teresa Blackburn and Adrian Martinez-Perez had filed a complaint in July 2014 alleging the officers had illegally seized $20,000 in cash belonging to the married couple during a May 2014 encounter that also resulted in the assault and arrest of Martinez-Perez.
The officers named in the suit, J.L. Redden, E.G. Shumate, K.L. Cullison, M.W. Long and R.L. Joyner, had argued that probable cause justified their actions, according to court documents.
In February, U.S. District Court Judge Loretta C. Biggs handed down an order which found that several constitutional and state law violations had occurred. In that opinion and order she ruled on the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, which is a way of disposing a case without the need for a trial when there is no genuine dispute to material facts.
According to facts detailed in Biggs’ order, Blackburn and Martinez-Perez had gone to Charlaka Tax Office in Kernersville on May 22, 2104 to open two businesses. They were accompanied by Leonardo Lopez Garcia.
The owner, Elizabeth Charlaka, had made a report to the Kernersville Police Department the day before regarding a dispute between her daughter and Garcia, her daughter’s boyfriend, whom she feared was going to go to the tax office with a gun.
When the trio arrived at the office the next day, Charlaka phoned the police.
Joyner arrived on the scene and frisked Garcia, who was unarmed.
Redden arrived while Garcia was detained and performed a second frisk, during which Martinez-Perez approached, asked Redden the reason for his frisk of Garcia and told Redden that Garcia was unarmed.
The officer told Martinez-Perez to “wait his turn,” and the plaintiff walked away and sat on a nearby windowsill, according to the court document.
Redden later approached Martinez-Perez, told him to stand up and asked him if he had any weapons.
He told the officer of a pocketknife in his pocket for work and pointed to his pocket with his hands raised.
“During Redden’s encounter with Martinez-Perez, Shumate arrived on the scene and approached with his gun pointed at Martinez-Perez. Despite his compliance with Redden’s attempted frisk, the officers threw Martinez to the ground, and Shumate place his foot on the Martinez-Perez’s shoulder. While on the ground, Martinez-Perez was kicked by multiple officers and struck in the face by Redden before being arrested, handcuffed, and placed in the backseat of a patrol car.”
Officers found a $5 bill on the ground with white powder on its face which tested positive for cocaine. Martinez-Perez denied ownership of the bill.
An alert during a subsequent canine sniff of Blackburn’s car led to two officers searching it and discovering $16,000 cash found inside the vehicle in Blackburn’s purse.
Martinez-Perez told the officers about $4,000 cash in his pocket.
The money was seized and Martinez-Perez was charged with resisting arrest and simple possession of a controlled substance.
“Based on the totality of the circumstances, including the information known to Redden at the time of the seizure, a reasonable officer would not have concluded that there was reasonable suspicion that Plaintiff was engaged in criminal activity,” Biggs stated, noting that Redden’s assertion that Martinez-Perez “interjected himself” while he addressed Garcia “falls woefully short” of the required justification for such a seizure.
“Defendant’s own evidence demonstrates that the officers did not have probable cause to seize Plaintiff’s funds pursuant to the federal forfeiture statute…” stated the judge elsewhere in the document.
“The connection, or lack thereof, between Blackburn’s money and potential drug activity is even more tenuous than that of Martinez-Perez as discussed above.”
The ruling granted the motion for summary judgment for certain parts, including the plaintiff’s equal protection claims. “It was a huge win,” said Clarke Dummit, one of the plaintiff’s attorneys.
“They wanted to prove they hadn’t done anything wrong. The purpose of the lawsuit was to make sure the people are protected from an overreaching government. The money damages after were a lesser part of the whole situation.”
Of the $110,000 ruling, $30,000 went to the plaintiffs and $80,000 toward legal fees.
Ashlee Poplin, one of the attorneys for the defense, confirmed the amount of the settlement and noted that the insurance company which handles liability for the town “made the payments entirely.”
Poplin decline to comment further on the case.
“This sort of thing goes on a lot more than people realize,” Dummit said. “It usually happens to disenfranchised people who don’t have the wherewithal to get lawyers.”
Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.