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False arrest leads to $200K award

What do you get when you sprinkle a little inexperience and a little malice on an impaired driving arrest and prosecution? An award of more than $200,000 for a college professor who doesn’t drink.

A Richland County jury made its decision May 19 after considering the case for less than an hour, according to Columbia attorney Paul Reeves, who represented plaintiff Darris Hassell, a 47-year-old Spanish professor and volleyball coach at the University of South Carolina Lancaster.

Paul Reeves

Paul Reeves

According to his complaint, Hassell was arrested Feb. 19, 2014 after stepping away from his studies at the Thomas Cooper Library on USC’s main campus in Columbia for a bite to eat. On his way home after swinging by McDonald’s, Hassell was pulled over by a Columbia police officer. The officer first alleged that Hassell had made an illegal turn before accusing Hassell of smelling like alcohol. Hassell denied making an improper turn and told the officer that he didn’t drink — that night or any night — and had not taken any drugs that would impair him.

The officer put Hassell through a battery of field sobriety tests, tests Hassell claims the officer was unfamiliar with and needed a reference manual to administer.

“The arresting officer paid more attention to the manual or book than he did to Plaintiff,” the complaint states.

Hassell was arrested and, despite his pleas of innocence, submitted to a breath test at the police station, where a Datamaster failed to detect even a trace of alcohol.

Hassell said this “dumbfounded” the officer, who then claimed drugs caused Hassell’s impairment. Hassell was taken to a hospital for a urine sample, which he said the officer did not know how to collect nor what to do with.

Hassell said that after he was placed into a transport wagon headed for the local detention center, he spoke to another officer who found it hard to believe Hassell was being arrested for DUI. He “begged the officer to help him,” court records show, but the officer said he could not override the arresting officer’s decision.

As part of his embarrassing ordeal, Hassell said, he was booked into the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center. At his court hearing, Hassell met with the arresting officer, who insisted on going forward with the case despite not having any “credible relevant evidence” that Hassell had done anything wrong. The urine sample and the dash cam footage had somehow been lost, and Reeves felt like the evidence that did remain — video of the Datamaster test — spoke loudly to his client’s claims of sobriety.

But at the next hearing, after Hassell had requested a jury trial, the officer indicated that he wished to dismiss the DUI and improper turn charges.

Hassell filed suit on Feb. 11, 2016, accusing the city of false arrest, malicious prosecution, and negligent supervision. The trial lasted three days.

According to Hassell, city attorney Natalie Ham told the jury during closing arguments that the charges had been dropped and his record expunged, asking what more Hassell wanted.

It’s unclear exactly what Ham meant, and Reeves said he doesn’t believe her intent was as callous as it sounded.

Ham declined to comment, saying that the city plans to appeal the decision. Judge L. Casey Manning has already denied a motion by the city to reduce or toss out the jury’s award.

But to answer the question, Reeves said that while he believes Hassell deserved a big verdict, he was looking only for vindication.

“He said from the very beginning, ‘I knew that somewhere, somehow, somebody would make this right.’”

 

Follow Heath Hamacher on Twitter @SCLWHamacher

 

SETTLEMENT REPORT – FALSE ARREST/MALICIOUS PROSECUTION

Amount: $200,075

Injuries alleged: Anxiety, loss of freedom, mental anguish, shame

Case name: Darris Hassell v. City of Columbia

Court: Richland County Court of Common Pleas

Case No.: 16 CP 40 0910

Judge: L. Casey Manning

Date of settlement: May 19

Attorneys for plaintiff: Paul Reeves of Reeves & Lyle in Columbia

Attorney for defendant: City attorney Natalie Ham of Columbia

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