The town of Kernersville and its insurer have agreed to pay $30,000 in damages and $80,000 in attorneys’ fees to settle a lawsuit alleging that several police officers illegally seized cash from a couple after roughing up the husband.
The town’s police department also returned $20,000 cash that was taken from the couple, Teresa Blackburn and Adrian Martinez-Perez, prior to the settlement, which was reached March 17. The money was seized during an incident in May 2014.
“If we proceeded to trial, the attorneys’ fees portion of the 1983 claim [alleging violations of the Civil Rights Act] would have gone up even further, even if the jury only awarded nominal damages,” said an attorney for the couple, E. Clarke Dummit of Dummit Fradin in Winston-Salem.
He added that his firm logged about 80,000 hours on the case, which involved multiple hearings in state court before it was removed to federal court. The $30,000 payment covers the couple’s emotional distress damages.
Blackburn and Martinez-Perez were visiting a tax office in Kernersville with a third person, Leonardo Garcia, who had a history with the business’ owner, according to Dummit. The couple had planned to open two businesses.
The owner called the Kernersville Police Department and reported that Garcia had a gun. Officers responding to the call searched Garcia, who was unarmed, before confronting Blackburn and Martinez-Perez.
Martinez-Perez told an officer that he was carrying a pocketknife for work and complied with an attempted frisk while another officer held him at gunpoint. But the officers suddenly threw him to the ground, kicked him and struck him in the face before handcuffing him, U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs of Winston-Salem found in a Feb. 25 order.
The officers then told Martinez-Perez that they’d found a $5 bill on the ground that tested positive for cocaine and subsequently seized $4,000 from his pocket and $16,000 cash from Blackburn’s purse, which was inside the couple’s vehicle. The officers never found drugs in the car or on the couple.
Attorneys for the town and its officers did not respond to an interview request.
Dummit said he sees “a lot of these” types of asset forfeiture cases, noting that he has one pending in Charlotte.
But he also said that the “client has to come with very clean hands or else they’re not willing to go into federal court” to reclaim their seized assets, even if the seizure was blatantly unconstitutional.
Blackburn and Martinez-Perez have clean criminal records, according to Dummit.
“It takes a very strong client to be willing to go through this litigation,” he added.
Follow Phillip Bantz on Twitter @NCLWBantz
CIVIL RIGHTS – SEARCH AND SEIZURE
Case name: Blackburn, et al. v. Town of Kernersville, et al.
Court: U.S. District Court, Middle District
Case No. 1:14CV560
Judge: Loretta Biggs
Date of settlement: March 17
Amount: $30,000 in damages; $80,000 in attorneys’ fees
Attorneys for plaintiffs: E. Clarke Dummit, Daniel Donovan and David McCleary of Dummit Fradin in Winston-Salem, Greensboro and Charlotte, respectively
Attorneys for defendants: Ashlee Poplin and Andrew Santaniello of Clawson & Staubes in Charlotte and John Wolfe of Kernersville