Virginia’s Highest Court Confirms That It Will Not Tolerate Virginia Law Enforcement Violations Of The 4th Amendment To The U.S. Constitution Or Virginia Statutes Protecting Its Citizens from Unlawful Arrests, Unlawful Searches and Excessive Force.
UPDATE: July 12, 2021 – Petersburg jury awarded $300,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. The trial court will next determine attorneys’ fees to be awarded.
On January 16, 2020, the Virginia Supreme Court issued an opinion reversing the Circuit Court for the City of Petersburg which rejected federal civil rights claims and a unlawful search claim of Monica Cromartie, finding that Petersburg Police Officer Brian Lee Billings is liable for violations of an unlawful search under Virginia Code § 19.2-59, for false arrest under 42 USC § 1983 and excessive force claims under 42 USC § 1983 and remanding the case for a determination of compensatory and punitive damages, an award of costs, interest, and attorneys’ fees.
In this case, Monica Cromartie, an African American woman was stopped for speeding. A simple matter involving a traffic infraction went terribly wrong. When Ms. Cromartie got out of the car protesting, Officer Brian Lee Billings directed her to get back in her car and shut the door, which she did. Ms. Cromartie was a 54 year-old woman weighing about 100 pounds and standing about 4’ 9 inches. After backup arrived, Officer Billings approached the vehicle while Ms. Cromartie was vigorously protesting to somebody else on her cellphone, when he knocked on her window. She replied “What” but continued her protest into her cell-phone. When Billings stated “I need you to roll down your window” and “Ma’am” knocking on the window a second time, she stated “Hey officer, leave me alone.” With a mere seconds passing, Officer Billings overreacted in a hostile and violent fashion, opened the driver’s door and ripped Ms. Cromartie from the car and forced her face-down onto the payment and placed his weight on her back with such force that he injured Ms. Cromartie’s forehead, teeth, lip, right eye and right knee before she was handcuffed and then shackled by the legs by other officers. Officer Billings testified under oath to the magistrate that he “opened the car door, instructed her to get out” which the police videos did not support in order to obtain a warrant for obstruction of justice against her which was later dismissed. The court found the fact that a neutral magistrate issued a warrant was not in this case a clear indication that an officer acted in an objectively reasonable manner, stating “when ‘it is obvious that no reasonably competent officer would have concluded that a warrant should issue,’ the “shield of immunity” otherwise conferred by the warrant will be lost.'”
Jonathan Arthur and Andrew Bodoh, attorneys with the civil rights law firm of Thomas H. Roberts & Associates, PC represented her in a civil jury trial in Petersburg where the jury determined that Officer Billings had in fact assaulted and battered, falsely imprisoned and maliciously prosecuted Ms. Cromartie on charges of obstruction of justice. However, the trial court ruled that the jury did not get to decide the state law claim of the unlawful search or the federal law claims of the 4th Amendment violations because it ruled that Officer Billings was legally immune from such claims. The law firm appealed the denial of the Circuit Court to submit to the jury the claims for an unlawful search that followed the unlawful arrest, together with the constitutional claims. Attorney Jonathan Arthur argued the case to the Virginia Supreme Court.
On April 20, 1871 congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1871, also known as the “Ku Klux Klan Act” as a remedy to protect citizens who were denied federal and U.S. Constitutional rights. Later, 42 USC § 1983 incorporated the act to provide a remedy for violations. In 1976, congress passed the Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Award Act of 1976, which became 42 U.S.C. § 1988, explicitly providing for attorneys’ fees to continue to enable law firm’s like Thomas H. Roberts & Associates, PC to be reimbursed for the high costs of championing the civil rights of people like Ms. Cromartie. Congress was motivated by the fear that civil rights statutes would not be enforced, civil liberties would not be protected, and officers like Billings would remain unaccountable for their actions without private plaintiffs like Cromartie and that the high costs of civil rights litigation would discourage plaintiffs like Cromartie from bringing civil rights suits. S. Rep. No. 1011, 94th Cong., 2d Sess., note 9, at 1; 6 (1976).
The law firm of Thomas H. Roberts & Associates, PC. has been litigating civil rights and personal injury cases since 1986. The first firm to obtain a verdict of $1 Million + in the history of Henrico County, the law firm has obtained many significant victories to protect the injured, individual liberties and to protect the civil rights of Virginia’s citizens.
Thomas H. Roberts & Associates, PC
105 S 1st Street
Richmond, VA 23219