A federal appeals court Wednesday upheld a jury’s $730,000 award to a Black Secret Service agent unconstitutionally detained by two white U.S. Park Police officers during a traffic stop as he waited to accompany a Cabinet secretary’s motorcade in Maryland.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that Gerald Ferreyra and Brian Phillips violated Nathaniel Hicks’ Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure, saying the officers acted without justification.
In its published 3-0 decision, the 4th Circuit said Ferreyra and Phillips did not have qualified immunity from suit because the unlawfulness of their detention of Hicks was “clearly established” at the time.
Qualified immunity does not apply to “violations of the Fourth Amendment involving unjustified, warrantless searches and seizures by line officers performing routine criminal law enforcement duties,” Senior Judge Barbara Milano Keenan wrote for the 4th Circuit. “The officers in the present case confronted nothing more than established principles of Fourth Amendment law with extensive judicial guidance regarding the right of individuals to be free from unjustified, warrantless seizures.”
The officers’ appellate attorney, Ned Parent, called the 4th Circuit’s decision “irreconcilable” with recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that federal officer liability should be left largely to Congress to determine.
“We are considering all available options to continue this fight on behalf of officers Ferreyra and Phillips, including a request for en banc review by the 4th Circuit and a petition for writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court,” Parent stated via email Wednesday.
Parent is with Silverman, Thompson, Slutkin & White in Baltimore.
Hicks’ appellate attorney, Yiyang Wu, stated via email Wednesday that “Nathaniel Hicks is pleased that the 4th Circuit affirmed (Senior U.S. District) Judge (Paul W.) Grimm’s decision and that the federal jury’s finding that the defendants violated his constitutional rights was upheld.”
Wu is with Relman Colfax PLLC in Washington.
In July 2015, Hicks was preparing to lead a motorcade through Maryland when the officers detained him on the shoulder of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. Ferreyra pointed his weapon at Hicks as he approached the agent’s parked vehicle and saw a gun on the front seat, Hicks stated in the lawsuit heard in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.
Hicks alleged the officers singled him out because of his race and said he did nothing to justify being detained after the officers confirmed he was an on-duty Secret Service agent. Hicks claimed Ferreyra and Phillips yelled at him, talked to him in a degrading manner and would not let him leave even after he showed them his Secret Service credentials.
Hicks, now a retired 20-year veteran of the Secret Service, had been assigned to a protection motorcade for then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on the morning of July 11, 2015. The motorcade slowed to allow Hicks to join it, but the officers continued to detain the agent. One of them mockingly waved at the passing vehicles, according to Hicks’ counsel.
Phillips briefly stopped Hicks a second time — allegedly for talking on a cellphone while driving erratically — after he drove away from the spot along Interstate 295 in Maryland where the officers initially detained him. Phillips continued to talk to Hicks in a demeaning tone before throwing his identification and registration at him, the suit alleged.
The jury awarded Hicks $525,000 in punitive damages and $205,000 in compensatory damages.
The officers appealed to the 4th Circuit, challenging not only the denial of qualified immunity but what they called an excessive punitive damages award.
In affirming the award, the appellate court said the officers acted maliciously toward Hicks by detaining him “unnecessarily and deliberately,” using abusive language and demonstrating harassing behavior. In addition, the punitive damages — at less than three time the compensatory damages awarded — was well within the “single-digit punitive-to-compensatory-damages ratio” federal courts have upheld, the 4th Circuit held.
Keenan was joined in the decision by Senior Judge Diana Gribbon Motz and Judge Pamela A. Harris.
The 4th Circuit rendered its decision in Nathaniel Hicks v. Gerald L. Ferreyra and Brian A. Phillips.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.