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Suit: Black man’s stop result of officer’s bias

by Dale Ellis | March 20, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

LITTLE ROCK — The son of a retired Pulaski County Circuit Judge filed a lawsuit in federal court recently alleging that racial bias was behind a traffic stop in August by a trooper with the Arkansas State Police.

Marion Humphrey Jr., whose father, Marion Humphrey Sr., retired in 2010 after serving 18 years as circuit judge, alleged in the lawsuit that Arkansas State Police Trooper Steven Payton stopped him on Interstate 40 near Russellville on August 20 and left him handcuffed in the back of a patrol car for over an hour while Payton and three other officers searched the U-Haul truck Humphrey was driving.

According to a joint press release from Eldridge Brooks Partners of Rogers and Robins Kaplan LLP of Minneapolis, during the course of the nearly two-hour traffic stop, Payton made “numerous inappropriate comments and statements to Humphrey and the other officers.”

Humphrey is represented by former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas Connor Eldridge with Eldridge Brooks Partners, and former U.S. Attorney for the District of North Dakota Tim Purdon and Robert Bennett of Robins Kaplan LLP.

At one point, the release said, while Humphrey was on the phone with his father, Payton questioned whether that was actually who Humphrey was talking to, saying, “you always wonder if Daddy is actually Daddy.”

The lawsuit alleges that for over an hour, Payton and three other police officers searched the back of the U-Haul truck while Humphrey was handcuffed in the back seat of Payton’s patrol car. One of the officers, a Pope County sheriff’s deputy, asked whether Humphrey had consented to the search and, according to the lawsuit, after Payton told him no, Payton then told the deputy, “He’s just super nervous acting.”

After more than an hour spent searching the truck and nearly two hours after the traffic stop was initiated, the lawsuit said, and finding nothing, Payton then wrote Humphrey a warning for careless driving and allowed him to leave.

The lawsuit said that although Payton told Humphrey and the other police officers who joined in the search that he had stopped Humphrey because he had nearly wrecked the U-Haul, no evidence of that existed on Payton’s patrol car dash-cam video and it was never mentioned in a three-page memorandum Payton wrote detailing the stop.

The lawsuit says that Humphrey’s Fourth Amendment protection from unlawful search and seizure and his 14th Amendment right to due process and equal protection under the law were violated by the traffic stop and subsequent detainment of Humphrey and search of the U-Haul he was driving.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages to be determined at trial by a jury, including Humphrey’s costs and attorney’s fees, as well as punitive damages.

Reached by phone Thursday, Eldridge said Humphrey’s experience in being stopped was an egregious case of “driving while Black.”

“It is horrible and it absolutely happened how the [lawsuit] narrative reads,” Eldridge said. “It should never have happened but the good thing is that the entire thing is on video so almost everything in the narrative came from that video.”

The video Eldridge was referring to was the dashcam video from Payton’s patrol car that captured the entirety of the nearly two-hour traffic stop.

Eldridge said the lawsuit, which names Payton, “acting in his individual capacity as an Arkansas State Police trooper,” as the defendant, was filed under the federal statute 42 U.S.C. 1983, the statute that codifies the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which is applicable when someone acting under color of law deprives a person of rights created by the U.S. Constitution or federal statutes.

Eldridge said by suing Payton for the actions he took on behalf of the Arkansas State Police as a state trooper, the civil action has the effect of drawing the agency itself into the lawsuit.

“In effect,” he said, “the state is very much at the table.”

Bill Sadler, spokesman for Arkansas State Police, said the agency had not yet received a copy of the lawsuit.

“Regarding the Marion Humphrey, Jr. lawsuit,” Sadler said, “state police commanders have not seen a copy of the lawsuit and we will not be making public statements about the case while there is pending litigation.”

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