$150,000 settlement reached for Pulaski County man arrested after cursing trooper

bpurser@macon.comApril 12, 2013 

A Pulaski County man is receiving a $150,000 settlement from the state after he was arrested for cursing a state trooper, an attorney says.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals previously found that the speech of Lawrence Merenda was protected, said Charles E. Cox Jr., a Macon attorney representing Merenda. But the issue of liability was to be left to a jury trial in federal court in Macon, Cox said.

That jury trial was scheduled for Monday. But the case went into arbitration, and the $150,000 settlement was reached, Cox said.

On Thursday, Cox filed in federal court a stipulation of dismissal of the lawsuit with prejudice, court records show. This is a dismissal of a case based on arbitration that prohibits the person who files the lawsuit from bringing further legal action on the same matter. The dismissal becomes the final judgment in the case. The notice states the parties in the lawsuit bear their own costs.

“Mr. Merenda is pleased to have this case resolved,” Cox stated in an email. “Mr. Merenda has always contended that he did nothing more than engage in constitutionally protected speech.

“He is delighted to have established through the rulings of the District Court and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals that his speech was protected and that the First Amendment prohibits law enforcement officers from arresting an individual based solely on that individual’s constitutionally protected speech,” Cox continued in the email.

Daryl Robinson, a spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office, confirmed by email that the settlement was reached.

“The settlement resulted from mediation and was viewed by us as a compromise to avoid the risk and uncertainty of going to trial ... which we were prepared to do,” Robinson stated. “The settlement specifically denied liability on the part of Trooper (Justin) Tabor.”

Tabor left the Georgia State Patrol in 2011.

On Dec. 24, 2008, Tabor in his role as a state trooper pulled over Merenda’s daughter for a seat belt violation in the parking lot of a Perry nursing home where Merenda worked, according to the original lawsuit filed Dec. 20, 2010, in federal court in Macon.

Merenda came outside and asked what was going on. Tabor said Merenda’s daughter was wearing the seat belt improperly under her arm, and he was citing her. Merenda asked Tabor to give his daughter a break because she was having financial problems.

According to the lawsuit, Tabor told Merenda, “Well, you being a parent, you should understand having a seat belt on like that, you can get thrown out of a car. But if you are OK with her head getting smashed against the steering wheel as a parent that’s up to you.”

Merenda asked if the ticket was justified, and Tabor reportedly said, “Absolutely.”

Merenda then called Tabor a curse word and walked away, the lawsuit states.

Tabor arrested Merenda for felony obstruction of an officer, cuffed him and took him to jail. The charge was later dismissed.

The lawsuit alleged Tabor violated Merenda’s First Amendment right to free speech, his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizure and his Eighth Amendment protection from excessive force.

Tabor argued he had qualified immunity and asked for summary judgment, which would preempt a trial. Government officials are protected under qualified immunity in performance of their jobs as long as constitutional laws are not violated. The courts found that Tabor did not have qualified immunity, Cox said.

Warner Robins man shot in back settles for $20,000

Another lawsuit filed in federal court July 13, 2012, that accused Tabor of excessive force in shooting a man who was fleeing from authorities in a 2010 incident also was settled out of court.

According to federal court documents, Mackey Wiggins of Warner Robins received a settlement of $20,000 plus statutory costs and attorney fees.

“Defendant states that this offer of judgment does not admit any wrongdoing,” according to the settlement offer from the state Attorney General’s Office filed in the court record.

Wiggins’ lawsuit was filed about a car and foot chase on July 24, 2010.

Tabor allegedly “used deadly force by discharging his service weapon no less than three times -- striking plaintiff at least once in the back as he fled on foot,” the original lawsuit stated.

Tabor’s “use of force was unreasonable, unnecessary and excessive in light of all the circumstances,” the lawsuit stated.

The lawsuit stated that Wiggins was unarmed, did not resist or pose a threat or act aggressively toward Tabor.

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.

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