DANVILLE, Va. (CN) — A Virginia man who claimed he was illegally searched after he gave the middle finger to a police officer scored a win in federal court where a judge overturned a jury verdict favoring the cop.
Brian H. Clark was apparently no stranger to the Patrick County courthouse as he had previously been banned from entering the building except under certain circumstances. As noted in the trial transcript, however, Clark displayed no “untoward” actions on the day he was there in July 2016, however, and he left the building without incident.
Patrick County Lieutenant Rob Coleman saw Clark in the courtroom but didn’t interact with him. When he went on break, the officer drove to the grocery store and checked his phone for missed messages. That’s when Clark, riding shotgun in a passing car, flipped the bird toward the officer.
Coleman saw the gesture, began to follow Clark’s car and eventually initiated a traffic stop. No citation was issued and Clark was let go, but that didn’t stop him from filing a civil rights complaint over the stop.
A jury trial ensued with Clark alleging a violation of his Fourth Amendment right against unlawful seizure. At trial, Coleman testified he pulled the car over because, in his years on the force, “it’s very out of the norm for a normal citizen to flip off a police officer.”
“I thought it was quite possible that he either needed assistance for or that he had mistook me for somebody else or he was needing help,” the officer testified.
A sympathetic jury sided with Coleman, finding he had probable cause to pull Clark over. But Clark moved to have the verdict overturned. His wish was granted Tuesday in a 30-page opinion issued by U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski in Danville, Va.
“The evidence establishes Coleman effectuated a seizure of Clark without reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing, and that his actions, under color of law, amount to a constitutional violation,” the judge wrote. “Because the evidence does not reveal any reasonable basis for the seizure of Clark following his constitutionally protected speech, however crude, inappropriate, and unwarranted it may have been, the jury’s verdict is contrary to law and must be set aside.”
While Coleman had argued his stop was rooted in concern for Clark’s well-being, Urbanski pointed to the lack of incident at the courthouse where the two had crossed paths just before the traffic stop.
“Coleman had just seen Clark minutes before in court where Clark displayed no ‘untoward’ behavior and did not appear intoxicated,” the ruling states. “Under these circumstances, Coleman’s expressed concern over safety cannot ring true.”
While Urbanski, an Obama appointee, ruled in favor of Clark, he did not grant his request for a new trial to determine damages in the case. He instead awarded Clark nominal damages of $1 plus attorney’s fees.
In a phone interview, Clark called the decision a “win for the Fourth Amendment.”
He said he faced numerous stressful run-ins with county authorities throughout the three-year court battle, which he compared to harassment.
“But I’d do it all over again,” he said. “If we don’t stand up for our rights they’re going to be trampled.”
Clark was represented in the case by Richmond attorney Henry McLaughlin, who declined to comment.
John Johnson with the Roanoke firm Firth Anderson and Peake represented Coleman and the county in the dispute. In an email, he offered no comment on behalf of his clients but said they were evaluating the opinion.