Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the March 19 & 20, 2016 edition of the Kernersville News. On Tuesday, April 19, monetary details of the settlement were made public, including that the Town of Kernersville agreed to pay the plaintiffs $30,000 and another $80,000 in the plaintiffs’ attorney fees.
The Town has settled a federal lawsuit filed in 2014 in which a Surry County couple alleged that Kernersville police officers illegally seized $20,000 in cash and assaulted one of them.
The exact amount of the settlement has not been made public.
“The (Town) has agreed to settle the case and although we have settled on a monetary amount, not all the terms have been settled and we still have paperwork to do,” said Clarke Dummit, one of the attorneys who represents plaintiffs Teresa Blackburn and Adrian Martinez-Perez.
Dummit said a request to dismiss the lawsuit will be filed in the next few weeks. He also said the couple is happy with the result.
Last month, a federal judge ruled that the lawsuit could move forward in a case where Blackburn and Martinez-Perez accused several officers and the Town with violating their civil rights.
The incident occurred on May 22, 2014 after several Kernersville Police Department (KPD) officers responded to Chalarka Tax on South Main Street following a report of a man with a gun.
In addition to the Town, five officers were named in the lawsuit. U.S. District Court Judge Loretta Biggs denied a request by the officers for a summary judgment in their favor. She also ruled that claims against the Town had not been substantiated and that a search of the couple’s vehicle was legal.
On the day in question, the couple said they were at Chalarka Tax to set up two businesses. For that purpose, court papers say Blackburn had $16,000 in her purse and Martinez-Perez had $4,000 in his pocket. Another man, Leonardo Lopez Garcia, was reportedly with the couple.
At some point, the lawsuit says a Chalarka Tax employee called the KPD for what was described in court papers as a situation in which Garcia allegedly had a gun and threatened one or more of the businesses’ employees.
Upon arrival, the lawsuit says the KPD officers spoke with the employee and Garcia, but when Martinez-Perez offered to translate for Garcia, the lawsuit claims the officers ordered him to “put his hands in the air.” Martinez-Perez says he complied with the order, but after saying he had a pocketknife in his pocket ,Martinez-Perez claimed the officers rushed him, “took him to the ground, shoved a foot in his face, twisted his arm behind his back, and arrested him.”
After searching Martinez-Perez, the lawsuit says the officers reported finding cocaine on a five dollar bill that had fallen from his pocket. It was also reported that a subsequent search of Blackburn’s vehicle did not produce any drugs or weapons.
Martinez-Perez was reportedly taken to the Forsyth County Detention Center, charged with resisting and delaying an officer and possession of a schedule II controlled substance. Blackburn was not charged with any crime. A state court entered an order returning the seized money to the plaintiffs and charges against Martinez-Perez were later dropped.
In the lawsuit, Martinez-Perez asserted a claim for false arrest and excessive force, and both he and Blackburn claimed unreasonable search and unreasonable seizure. They also each claimed intentional infliction of emotional distress and slander, as well as discrimination against the Town.
The KPD and the Town filed a motion for dismissal of the lawsuit, but a judge denied that motion in December 2014.
In Biggs’ ruling last month, she concluded that officers had no probable cause to arrest Martinez-Perez and that the search of his person was unconstitutional. She also ruled that the seizure of the couple’s money was illegal and that, on those findings, the case could move forward in the courts.
In looking at the plaintiffs’ argument that they were racially discriminated against because they are Hispanic and that the Town of Kernersville has a policy of targeting minorities, Biggs found no evidence to support the claim or that officers violated their federal equal protection claim. She also did not find that officers slandered the couple.