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$80,000 Award Reinstated in Illegal Seizure, Equal Protection Claim

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a Delaware federal district court’s overturning of a jury’s verdict in a civil rights case that alleged Gregory Spence of the Delaware State Police falsely arrested, illegally seized, and maliciously prosecuted Courtland C. Pitts, as well as deprived him of equal protection under law.

Pitts, an African American, went to Mitchem’s Auto Body Shop to converse with its owner, James Mitchem, Jr., a Caucasian, about his displeasure with work Mitchem completed on Pitt’s car. A verbal dispute ensued, and Mitchem conveyed a physical threat. The men fought and Mitchem was knocked down. A shop employee, Daniel Wykpisz, picked up an aluminum baseball bat and chased Pitts from the shop. Pitts picked up a board to defend himself, and Wykpisz stopped the chase, turned around, and went back to the shop.

When Pitts went back to his car, he discovered his windshield and hood had sustained fresh damage. While near the car, Mitchem told Pitts to leave the area or he would get his gun. Both Mitchem and Pitts dialed 911, with Pitts reporting the gun threat. Gregory Spence was one of the two officers responding to the call.

As Spence approached, Pitts waved his arms to indicate he was the one who called for assistance. He was acknowledged by Spence, who slightly rolled down his window and yelled for Pitts to “get back.” Pitts accused him of acting in a racist manner, saying Spence, who is Caucasian, would have treated him differently if he was a “white guy.” After hollering at each other, Spence handcuffed Pitts and placed him in the patrol car.

Pitts was never given a chance to explain the situation at the scene as Spence investigated, and he later declined to give a statement. Both Mitchem and Pitts were arrested by Spence. Pitts was charged with aggravated menacing, two counts of terroristic threatening, assault in the third degree, disorderly conduct, and criminal trespass. He was ultimately acquitted of all charges. Mitchem was charged with disorderly conduct, offensive touching, and criminal trespass. He pled no contest to two of the charges while the other was dropped through plea bargain.

Pitts brought suit after conclusion of the state court proceedings. The jury found for him on his illegal seizure and equal protection claims and for Spence on the false arrest and malicious prosecution claims. It awarded Pitts $80,000 in compensatory damages and $1,100 in punitive damages. The district court granted Spence’s motion for judgment as matter of law, and Pitts appealed.

The Third Circuit held there was sufficient evidence, when viewed in light of the most favorable to Pitt, that he was subject to an unlawful seizure. The detention occurred prior to Spence concluding his investigation, and Pitt did not receive his Miranda Rights. While Spence testified he detained Pitts because he feared for his own safety, the jury could have concluded that fear was unreasonable.

“Moreover, it was error for the Court to rely on Fourth Amendment principles regarding investigatory detentions because the jury was not instructed on that jurisprudence,” wrote the Court. “Even if Spence had an articulable suspicion that Pitts had committed a crime, the jury was informed only of the law regarding probable cause.”

Spence also had Pitt’s car impounded and searched. Spence said the towing was necessary to protect the vehicle and prevent another altercation. He contended he did not search the vehicle to look for a gun, which the jury could have properly rejected as not credible and a pretextual statement to justify looking for the gun.

The Court, finally, held that there was sufficient evidence to support the equal protection claim. When creating the police reports, Spence was much more detailed and used capital letters to describe Pitt’s alleged conduct, but was vague and used capitals for only names and locations in the charging documents for Mitchem. Spence also failed to describe his initial contact with Pitts. The district court’s order was reversed with instructions to reinstate the verdict and consider awarding Pitt’s attorney’s fees and costs.

See: Pitts v. Delaware, 646 F.3s 151 (3rd Cir. 2011) Case No. 10-3388

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Related legal case

Pitts v. Delaware