Witness Stand ‘Preaching’ Marred Jury Verdict

     COLUMBUS, Ga. (CN) – Jurors got it “terribly wrong” when they ordered a deputy sheriff to pay a woman millions after she preached to them from the stand, a federal judge ruled.
     Denise and Calvin Richardson claimed that Quitman County Deputy Sheriff Corey Mason violated their constitutional rights when he pulled their car over and had them subjected to invasive strip-searches.
     Mason had received a tip from a confidential informant that the vehicle contained illegal drugs, but his search yielded no contraband.
     Denise Richardson’s illegal strip search claim against Mason went to trial, as did Calvin Richardson’s Fourth Amendment and false-arrest claims against Mason.
     Though the search on Denise lasted five minutes and was conducted in the privacy of a convenience store restroom by a female agent, the jury nevertheless ordered Mason to pay her $2.5 million for pain and suffering.
     U.S. District Judge Clay Land struck that award Monday, finding that the jurors may have been swayed by a “sermon” Denise delivered from the witness stand.
     “During plaintiff Denise Richardson’s direct examination, she embellished her description of Defendant’s conduct by volunteering that ‘God don’t like ugly,’ as she preached to the jury that she was a ‘God-fearing woman’ who lived by ‘the Good Book,'” Land wrote. “Two audible ‘Amens’ could be heard from the jury box in response to her mini-sermon. Whether this public display of affirmation reflected an impassioned jury incapable of rendering a verdict based on the evidence and consistent with the law cannot be determined; but it certainly foreshadowed the ultimate result.”
     Finding that Mason had reasonable suspicion that Denise had drugs hidden on her, Land said the deputy sheriff deserved qualified immunity.
     Furthermore the search did not involve any touching or probing of “Mrs. Richardson’s vaginal, rectal, or unclothed breast areas.”
     “Under these factual circumstances, the court finds that a reasonably prudent law enforcement officer would not have known under clearly established law that the manner of this search violated Mrs. Richardson’s Fourth Amendment rights,” Land wrote.
     The jurors had also ordered Mason to pay $2.5 million to Denise’s husband, Calvin.
     Though Land found that this award could not stand either, he declined to award the officer immunity on these issues and instead remanded for a retrial.
     “Mason had reasonable suspicion that Mr. Richardson had illegal drugs in the areas that he searched,” the ruling states. “During the search, Defendant Mason made Mr. Richardson lower his pants. He then probed Mr. Richardson’s testicles and rectal area, all in public view in the parking lot of a busy convenience store located along a well-travelled highway with members of the public in close proximity to the location of the search.”
     Land also cited “evidence … that the probing created some degree of physical injury to Mr. Richardson’s rectal area that lasted for several months after the search.”
     “The evidence and factual findings, with reasonable inferences construed in favor of Mr. Richardson, essentially establish that Mr. Richardson was subjected to an involuntary prostate and testicular exam performed by non-medical personnel for all the public to see with no exigent circumstances requiring that the exam be conducted in the public parking lot,” according to the ruling.
     Land found it “hard to imagine a more invasive violation of one’s personal privacy.”
     “Under these circumstances, the Court finds that a reasonably prudent law enforcement officer would have known that the manner in which this particular search was conducted was clearly unreasonable and a violation of Mr. Richardson’s rights under the Fourth Amendment,” he added.
     Land said “the jury in this case was far too generous,” but that he was “not comfortable” in simply reducing the amount of the damages award.
     “The Court is confident that a new jury will be in a better position than a single judge to determine the appropriate resolution of this claim in a second trial,” he added.

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