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$5,000 Settlement for Warrantless Search of Pro Se North Carolina Prisoner’s Cellphone

by Matt Clarke

A North Carolina prisoner who alleged his constitutional rights were violated during his arrest and pretrial detention eventually filed five federal lawsuits. Three were dismissed by the federal court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. One is still pending. Another was settled on August 12, 2021, for a payment of $5,000 to the prisoner, Cornelius Lamont Barnes, 42.

The complaints date back to September 5, 2018, when Barnes was arrested by U.S. Marshals in Virginia and returned to North Carolina to face rape charges. Kinston police took him to Lenoir County Jail (LCJ). While he was there, Kinston Detectives executed a search warrant at Barnes’ residence on October 30, 2018, seizing a cellphone they found. They sent it to the State Bureau of Investigation lab, where a digital copy was made of its contents – despite the absence of a search warrant for the phone.

A CD with the copied information was given to Assistant District Attorney Tonya Montanye, who advised Barnes that she intended to use it in his criminal prosecution. On January 27, 2020, Barnes filed suit pro se in the Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging the search of the phone violated his Fourth Amendment guarantee of freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. The City then settled the case for $5,000. See: Barnes v. Montanye, USDC (E.D.N.C.), Case No. 5:20-ct-3033.

Meanwhile, on September 11, 2019, Barnes allegedly lured a female guard to his cell by asking her to pick up a grievance; when the guard arrived, she found him naked and masturbating. Barnes was disciplined for this with loss of privileges and some period of time in isolation – the parties disputed exactly how long. That eventually prompted Barnes to file four more pro se suits in the Court.

The first accused defendant jailers of violating his Fourteenth Amendment due-process rights – Barnes was still an unconvicted pre-trial detainee at that point – by refusing to grant him a disciplinary hearing. The next accused jail staff of retaliating against him for his grievances and lawsuits. A third accused two jailers and a pair of their supervisors of imposing discipline without hearings on two more occasions. Another suit claimed that the discipline amounted to punishment, again in violation of his due-process rights.

On March 17, 2022, the Court dismissed Barnes’ retaliation claims, saying that it wasn’t unreasonable to conclude his punishment was appropriate discipline for masturbating in front of the guard. Six days later, on March 23, 2022, the Court also dismissed his claim that the discipline was so excessive that it violated his due-process protection from pretrial punishment. See: Barnes v. Foster, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 48138 (E.D.N.C.); and Barnes v. Washington, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 51554 (E.D.N.C.).

But that same day, Barnes’ challenge to imposing discipline without a hearing was allowed to proceed against two guards who wrote him up, while his claims against supervising guards were dismissed. See: Barnes v. Avery, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 51558 (E.D.N.C.). However, Barnes’ other case challenging his discipline without a hearing did not survive. Quoting Adams v. Rice, 40 F.3d 72, 75 (4th Cir. 1994), the Court said “the Constitution creates no entitlement to grievance procedures or access to any such procedure voluntarily established by a state.” It dismissed the case on March 28, 2023. See: Barnes v. Ingram, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 53407 (E.D.N.C.).

That leaves one open claim at the Court for Barnes, who was convicted and sentenced as an habitual offender in November 2020 to 95 months. PLN will report updates to that case as they are available. See: Barnes v. Avery, USDC (E.D.N.C.), Case No. 5:20-ct-03270.