North Carolina man awarded $50,000 after officer lied about crack smell to authorize search

A North Carolina sheriff’s deputy has been ordered to pay $50,000 to a black man who was pulled over and searched more than four years ago, according to a lawsuit obtained by the Atlanta Black Star.

A federal judge agreed with Marcus Hyatt that Buncombe County Assemblyman Jeff May violated his constitutional rights by strip-searching an Asheville freeway gas station in January 2018.

The judge also found that race motivated the deputy to falsely claim he smelled crack cocaine on Hyatt and to complete a field drug test that found a tiny piece of substance was positive for cocaine.

US District Court Judge Martin Reidinger said his Aug. 3 decision was based on “May’s unlawful search and seizure, the humiliation and degradation plaintiff Hyatt suffered as a result of the inappropriate strip search, and the fear and concern that caused by the actions of the Defendant May in displaying a weapon and in preparing evidence to obtain the search warrant.”

Buncombe County Sheriff’s Deputy conducted a strip search of Marcus Hyatt in January 2018. (Photo: Getty Images/Oliver Helbig)

A jury had previously found in March 2021 that May had breached his duty as an MP by obtaining a search warrant “based on information he knew to be false and showing a gun.”

“In short, the jury found that the defendant May ‘gone apostate,'” Reidinger said.

According to the lawsuit filed in August 2019, May was part of the Buncombe County Anti-Crime Task Force, which “is known in the community for its cowboy-like tactics.”

Hyatt was a passenger in a car driven by Brandon Pickens, who is also black. Another deputy, JD Lambert, ran over the vehicle because Pickens was not using a turn signal.

According to the lawsuit, Hyatt and Dickens were handcuffed and searched and subjected to a K-9 unit for three and a half hours after May arrived at the scene. In addition, the lawsuit alleges they were forced to expose themselves to cave searches in “unsanitary, unreasonable and outrageous conditions that would undermine the common understanding of decency.”

Sheriff’s Deputy Katherine Lewis went to the home of Hyatt’s then-girlfriend Ashley Barrett and stopped her as she went to pick up her child. She had left the crime scene before the search was complete. Barrett said she was coerced into allowing Lewis to search her home and vehicle. She said Lewis and Lambert threatened to impound her car and take her children away.

Reidinger said Hyatt had “reasonable” reason to fear that drugs would be planted on his clothes once he removed his clothes.”

The lawsuit adds, “Finally, at that point, Plaintiff Hyatt had been detained for approximately three hours, with multiple searches by officers finding no illegal substances or items,” the judge wrote. “Additionally, Defendant May had previously made false statements about the smell of crack cocaine and the finding of a substance in the vehicle that tested positive for cocaine.”

Deputies found no illegal substances and the men were eventually released.

Hyatt and Barrett had jointly sought $500,000 for their “physical injury, personal humiliation, mental anguish and suffering.”

However, the judge dismissed Barrett’s lawsuit and that of the other deputies, Quentin Miller, the county’s first black sheriff, and former sheriff Van Duncan.

The jury found that Lambert conducted the strip search based on information he received from May, who claimed that the cocaine he discovered was destroyed in the field test device.

According to the Citizen Times, May is now a detective in Buncombe County. He was sued as an individual and must pay the judgment. Lewis is no longer an MP, but Lambert’s employment status is unclear.

Hyatt’s attorney, Brian Elston, said his client was satisfied with the verdict, even though he received less than what was claimed in damages. Still, Elston said he was considering filing requests for reimbursement of costs and attorneys’ fees.

“We had asked for the court to find that what happened to our client was wrong and hold someone accountable, and that is what happened. And that’s worth more to my client than any amount of money he could have received,” Elston said.

May’s lawyer could also make his own applications. He has 30 days to appeal the verdict.

Peoples attempted to cast doubt on Hyatt’s credibility and dispute claims of May’s malicious intent. Peoples said the deputies did not touch Hyatt and allowed him to undress himself. The body cam showed officers were courteous and also searched Dickens, according to Peoples. He said Hyatt had not mentioned the gun in previous statements.

“We contend the jury got it wrong and we’re looking at ways to set the record straight,” Peoples said. North Carolina man awarded $50,000 after officer lied about crack smell to authorize search

James Brien

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