Clark v. Coleman, Civil Action No. 4:17-cv-00045

CourtUnited States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Western District of Virginia)
Writing for the CourtHon. Michael F. Urbanski, Chief United States District Judge
Citation448 F.Supp.3d 559
Parties Brian H. CLARK, Plaintiff, v. Rob COLEMAN, Defendant.
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 4:17-cv-00045
Decision Date23 March 2020

448 F.Supp.3d 559

Brian H. CLARK, Plaintiff,
Rob COLEMAN, Defendant.

Civil Action No. 4:17-cv-00045

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Danville Division.

Signed March 23, 2020
Filed March 24, 2020

448 F.Supp.3d 564

Henry Woods McLaughlin, III, The Law Office of Henry McLaughlin PC, Richmond, VA, for Plaintiff.

John Chadwick Johnson, Nathan Henry Schnetzler, Frith Anderson & Peake PC, Roanoke, VA, for Defendant.


Hon. Michael F. Urbanski, Chief United States District Judge

"Fits of rudeness or lack of gratitude may violate the Golden Rule. But that doesn't make them illegal or for that matter punishable or for that matter grounds

448 F.Supp.3d 565

for a seizure." Cruise-Gulyas v. Minard, 918 F.3d 494, 495 (6th Cir. 2019).

This case concerns whether an officer may stop a vehicle because a passenger displayed an offensive gesture towards the officer, a gesture that anyone must concede "was crude, [but] not criminal." Wilson v. Martin, 549 F. App'x 309, 311 (6th Cir. 2013). A jury was empaneled, and they determined that the officer's actions did not violate the passenger's rights. The question before the court is whether that verdict can stand. After a review of the applicable law and relevant evidence, the court GRANTS Plaintiff Brian Clark's motion to set aside the jury verdict and enter judgment for the plaintiff. ECF No. 141. The law plainly prohibits that which occurred here, and the jury's verdict cannot stand. However, the court DENIES Clark's motion for a new trial on the issue of damages, finding, as a matter of law, that Clark has not carried his burden of demonstrating compensable or punitive damages sufficient to warrant a new trial. Id.


On the morning of July 25, 2016, Clark appeared in court in Patrick County, Virginia, on a civil matter unrelated to the present action. Previously, he had been banned from the courthouse, except under certain circumstances, by Circuit Court Judge Martin Clark. Because of that prior order, sheriff's deputies in Patrick County, who were responsible for courtroom security, were keenly aware of Clark. Defendant Lieutenant Rob Coleman was one of those deputies who was in the courtroom for Clark's hearing.1 Coleman was stationed in the back of the courtroom and, according to his testimony, he was in the courtroom "for quite a while." Trial Tr. 205:11, July 15, 2019, ECF No. 146 (hereinafter "Tr."). Nothing "untoward" happened during Clark's hearing, and Clark did not act intoxicated. Id. at 203:25–204:1; 232:11-16.

After the hearing was over,2 Coleman left the courthouse and drove his cruiser to a grocery store parking lot near the courthouse. Because he had been in court for some time, he pulled over to check messages and emails on his work cell phone. While Coleman sat in his cruiser, Clark and his sister, Beth Richardson, drove by. (Clark was the passenger, and his sister was driving.) As they did so, Clark "flipped [Coleman] off." Tr. 206:18.3

Coleman followed the car; he radioed the dispatcher his location, the license plate of the car, and the number of occupants, and effectuated a traffic stop on the vehicle. Coleman testified as to his rationale for the traffic stop:

It took me by surprise. In 20 years of doing this job in uniform, I've never had
448 F.Supp.3d 566
anybody that would flip me off that was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol or not suffering from some sort of mental illness.

Id. at 206:21-25. Coleman believed "[t]hat he had something going on for him to flip a uniformed police officer off, that I needed to make contact with him." Id. at 207:14-16. Coleman testified that he did not charge Clark with a crime:

No, I did not. After speaking to him, he didn't act intoxicated. He didn't act like he had any type of mental illness. I was just stopping him because it's very out of the norm for a normal citizen to flip off a police officer.... I thought it was quite possible that he either needed assistance for or that he had mistook me for somebody else or he was needing help.

Id. at 215:4-14. Coleman quickly made the assessment that none of this applied to Clark.

After speaking with him and questioning him about him flipping me off, and his answer, I wasn't angry. He wasn't angry. We didn't get in to a heated discussion on the side of the road. I didn't pull him out of the car. I didn't ask him to step on [sic] the car. He stayed seated. I checked to make sure that he didn't have any other outstanding papers. Once that civil paper was brought to the scene and given a copy to him, he was free to go.

Id. at 215:16-23.

When asked on cross-examination whether a police officer may conduct a traffic stop when a passenger in a vehicle insults an officer, Coleman responded that testified that "[i]t depends." Id. at 231:4-8. Coleman explained the grounds under which such a stop may occur:

If that person is doing something that would endanger himself or others, if he is or she is acting in a mentally ill way or where they could be a danger to someone else or themselves or someone else, then yes, it would be – it wouldn't be probable cause, but it would be enough for me to have reasonable suspicion that something is not normal with the passenger in that vehicle and I need to investigate further.

Id. at 231:9-18.

Once he pulled the car over, Coleman approached the passenger's side of the car. At no point did Coleman approach, or even speak to, the driver. See Tr. 120:10–11. Coleman asked Clark for his identification, which Clark readily produced. Coleman testified that he asked Clark: "What made you flip me off? Are you okay?" Id. at 210:12–13. Clark said he was waving and disagreed that he flipped Coleman off. Although Coleman testified that he realized at that point that Clark was neither intoxicated nor deranged, he did not send Clark on his way. Rather, Coleman walked back to his police car and called dispatch to run a check on Clark.

During the stop, several other patrol cars arrived to support Coleman as needed. See, e.g., Tr. 146:1–13 (testimony of Dustin Dillon); 152:14–24 (testimony of Shawn Keffer); 161:7–162:5 (testimony of Ronald Williams). At some point, Coleman noticed Denise Freeman, a friend of Clark's, videoing the scene with a cellular phone or iPad from some distance away. For his own safety, Coleman approached Freeman and explained that, while she was free to video him, for officer safety she needed to be in front of him. Ultimately, Coleman issued her a citation for impeding traffic.

Upon calling in Clark's information to dispatch, Coleman was alerted that there were civil papers to be served on Clark. Although the papers in question had been served on Clark some months prior, Coleman

448 F.Supp.3d 567

was not aware of that fact, and nothing apparently indicated to him or to the dispatcher that those papers had previously been served. Deputy Shawn Keffer, who had arrived on the scene after Coleman's call out, returned to dispatch, retrieved the papers, returned to the scene, and served the papers on Clark. Although Coleman had taken Clark's driver's license, another deputy returned it to him, and Clark was permitted to leave after approximately 10 – 20 minutes. Neither Clark nor his sister were cited for any crime or traffic infraction. Indeed, Coleman testified that "there was nothing about the way the driver was driving the car that indicated any kind of violation of any traffic laws at all." Id. at 119:14-17.

Clark filed suit against Coleman (and others) on July 10, 2017, alleging violations of his constitutional rights, and this matter was tried by a jury on July 15–16, 2019. At trial, the jury was instructed as follows:

To succeed on this claim [that Coleman violated Clark's Fourth Amendment rights], the plaintiff must prove each of the following elements by a preponderance of the evidence:

First: That the defendant intentionally committed acts that violated the plaintiff's federal constitutional right not to be seized without reasonable suspicion;

Second: That the defendant acted under color of law; and

Third: That the defendant's conduct caused the plaintiff's injuries.

As regards the first element, the plaintiff claims that the defendant seized him under unreasonable circumstances. In general, a seizure of a person in a traffic stop without a warrant is reasonable if the officer had reasonable suspicion to believe the plaintiff had committed or was committing a crime. In order to prove the seizure in this case was unreasonable, the plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he was arrested without reasonable suspicion. The plaintiff has the burden of proving that the defendant lacked reasonable suspicion for the stop....

Government officials in general, and police officers in particular, may not exercise their authority for personal motives, particularly in response to real or perceived slights to their dignity. The Constitution requires that, in the face of verbal challenges to police action, officers and municipalities must respond with restraint. The Constitution protects a significant amount of verbal criticism and challenge

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1 cases
  • Johns v. Gwinn, Case No. 7:18-cv-00150
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Western District of Virginia)
    • November 30, 2020
    ...Defendant cannot claim to be motivated by a mere "misunderstanding of the limits of his constitutional authority." Clark v. Coleman , 448 F.Supp.3d 559, 579 (W.D. Va. 2020). Because the evidence demonstrates that Defendant evinced reckless indifference to Plaintiff's Eighth Amendment right ......
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