Judge throws out lawsuit against Houston deputy accused of assault

bpurser@macon.comNovember 19, 2013 

This is the video of a traffic stop made by the Houston County Sheriff's Office in which excessive force is alleged. The video, provided after an open records request by the Telegraph, was approximately 26 minutes long. Sections of video before and after the event in question were cut for the sake of brevity. The continuity of the event in question was not altered. (Note: Though the dashboard camera states the date as Feb. 24, 2009, all parties agree that is incorrect, and the events occurred Feb. 24, 2010.)

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WARNER ROBINS -- A federal judge has thrown out a lawsuit filed by a woman who alleged a Houston County sheriff’s deputy assaulted and beat her during a 2010 traffic stop.

Darlene Smith was stopped for speeding 17 miles per hour over the posted 55 mph speed limit on U.S. 41 in Houston County on Feb. 24, 2010.

After a scuffle with deputy Kyle Stokes, Smith was initially charged with obstruction of an officer, obstructing highways, streets, sidewalks or other public passageways, and exceeding the maximum speed limit. The charges were later dismissed, according to Smith’s lawsuit filed against Stokes, Houston County and Sheriff Cullen Talton.

Smith alleged the arrest violated her Constitutional right against unreasonable seizure and that the deputy used excessive force. County Attorney Mike Long previously said a police car video of the traffic stop indicates Stokes acted properly.

Neither Smith nor Long could be reached for comment.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Marc Treadwell found Stokes reasonably believed he had probable cause to stop Smith for speeding based on the deputy’s own observation and confirmation of her 72 mph speed on radar.

Treadwell also found that the deputy’s use of force was reasonable based on the extent that Smith resisted arrest.

“The video taken by Stokes’s dashboard camera clearly shows that his use of force to arrest Smith was reasonably proportionate to the need for that force,” Treadwell said. “As Stokes began to exit his vehicle for a routine traffic stop, Smith was clearly screaming, using expletives, and yelling that Stokes better not come over to her vehicle.”

Smith’s son, a passenger in her vehicle, can be heard on the video telling Smith to “chill out” and that Stokes was “just doing his job,” the judge noted.

The deputy repeatedly warned Smith that if she did not cooperate, she would be charged with obstruction. The deputy removed her from the vehicle and a scuffle ensued.

The video shows that Stokes never struck Smith, Treadwell noted. Instead, the video shows Stokes struggling with Smith to get her to lie flat on the ground, so he could handcuff her, Treadwell said.

“Contrary to Smith’s allegation that Stokes slammed her to the ground after handcuffing her and pulling her upright, the video does not show Stokes forcefully or intentionally slamming her to the ground, but rather, it looks as though she tripped while Stokes was moving her backwards to his vehicle,” Treadwell said.

In addition, Smith had not shown any injuries indicating the use of force was excessive, Treadwell said. Other than a photo of her in a neck brace in which the court cannot discern any physical injuries, Smith has not produced any evidence to show her alleged injuries, he said.

And even if Smith had suffered some minor bruises or abrasions in the scuffle from resisting arrest, the deputy was acting under statutory immunity given to law enforcement officers in carrying out an arrest, Treadwell said.

Treadwell ruled the county is entitled to the recovery of legal costs from Smith for defense of the lawsuit, while Smith is entitled to nothing from the county.

The judge also denied Smith’s motion for reconsideration of his ruling throwing out the lawsuit. Smith sought reconsideration in part because she said she had not been able to find a new attorney after her original attorney withdrew from the case.

But Treadwell found Smith did not meet the statutory requirements for the ruling to be reconsidered.

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