Judge allows rights lawsuit to continue
Narrowing the focus somewhat, a federal judge has allowed two men to continue pursuing a civil-rights lawsuit that alleges Durham Police Department officers mishandled a 2009 drug investigation.
Along the way, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder said Eric Jackson and Robyn Haynes have “plausibly alleged” some of the officers involved failed to do their duty by allowing colleagues to search and arrest Jackson when there was no probable cause to suspect him of a crime.
“Officers may be liable for failing to act when there is a duty to act,” as their job is to “uphold the law and protect the public from illegal acts,” Schroeder said in a pre-trial ruling issued earlier this summer.
As is normal in the early stages of a civil lawsuit, the judge was accepting as true the version of events given on behalf Jackson and Haynes by their attorney, Durham lawyer Bob Ekstrand.
Should the case actually go to trial, Ekstrand and his clients will still have to come up with testimony and documentation that proves their claims.
Ekstrand filed the lawsuit for the two men in October 2012, alleging rights violations committed by six different officers during an investigation three years before.
Police-dog and physical searches of Jackson, a car belonging to Haynes and of Jackson’s house didn’t turn up any evidence justifying Jackson’s detention, or the felony cocaine- and heroin-possession charges officers eventually lodged against him, Ekstrand alleges.
The city’s lawyers have admitted subsequent testing of evidence either wasn’t performed or “did not confirm the presence of a controlled substance.” Prosecutors wound up dismissing the charges.
The lawsuit names as defendants the city government and the six officers involved, Jerry Yount, Vincent Pearsall, Mark Brown, Tim Stanhope, Danny Reaves and Larry Van de Water.
Ekstrand and his client allege Brown started the criminal case, initially by giving Jackson a traffic ticket, then by searching Jackson’s trash and finding a cigar butt.
City lawyers say Brown found “several bag corners and blunt guts” in the trash, “which are often evidence of drug-related activity.”
Schroeder, appointed to the federal bench by former President George W. Bush, did reject some of the claims Jackson and Haynes made against the officers.
They included one that alleged the officers’ handling of Jackson was motivated by racial animus. Schroeder noted that Ekstrand’s initial filing hadn’t alleged any facts to support that, beyond stating that Jackson is black.
The judge also rejected Ekstrand’s contention the officers were potentially liable under common-law obstruction-of-justice doctrine. He said the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had explicitly rejected that possibility in 2012, in a ruling on the Duke lacrosse case.
Ekstrand was one of the many lawyers involved in that case, representing three former Duke University men’s lacrosse players who saw much of their own lawsuit against the city gutted by the 4th Circuit.