Last month, a $270,000 settlement was reached between a Dagsboro man and the Town of Seaford, Del., and a city police officer.
In September 2011, Reginald Johnson was driving home after celebrating his 43rd birthday when he was pulled over by Seaford police. The police, who were looking for a suspect in the area, misidentified Johnson and ordered him out of his vehicle. A police car camera recorded Johnson being pulled from his vehicle.
“He was driving along; he had just left a party celebrating his birthday and had no clue why he got pulled over. The next thing he knew was he was being yanked out of his car and being Tased and roughed up pretty significantly,” said attorney Stephen Norman of The Norman Law Firm, Johnson’s attorney.
Norman said that his firm, which includes attorneys Daniel Herr and Ben Gichner, took Johnson’s case not because they saw the footage of the incident, but because of what Johnson said.
“We took the case before we had the tape,” said Norman. “It wasn’t as if somebody came to us and said, ‘Look — I have this great tape.’ His position was, ‘I had these officers Tase me, and I didn’t do anything — I was innocent.’ You can hear it in somebody’s voice when you believe them. You always make credibility assessments, and I found him to be incredibly credible right from the start.”
Norman said that, once the firm had possession of the video, they knew Johnson’s civil rights had been violated.
“What he said was confirmed when we got the video. We were able to get the video in the criminal case which 100 percent confirmed what he said. He was misidentified. He told us he was misidentified, and he was. It was obvious. The video itself speaks volumes. That was our whole case.”
Although the tape showed that Johnson’s rights had clearly been violated, Norman said, there’s always uncertainty when it comes to the outcome of any case.
“There’re always two elements to a case. You’ve got liability, where you win the case, and then you have to prove damages. Mr. Johnson’s special damages — something you could count like medical bills or lost wages — weren’t that substantial.
“The number we would get at trial, even if we got the jury outraged, was an unknown. We thought it could be very high, but we also understood it had the potential to be lower than the settlement value. We are confident in our decision to settle. We felt it was the best solution with the least risk for our client.
“Mr. Johnson’s case was a perfect example. If we didn’t have the video, that would’ve been a hard case to win. Because it’s often one person’s words against — in that video, there were five officers. I’m not sure it would’ve been the same story had that video not come out.”
Norman said Johnson will receive a $270,000 lump sum payment as a result of the settlement and is not prohibited from discussing the incident or the settlement.
“We — myself and Mr. Johnson — believed it was important to make sure that was known publically,” Norman explained. “It was kind of a give-and-take. In this case, we deemed the financial settlement and the ability to discuss it publicly as the most important aspect.
“We have requested relief in the form of officer training in the past. We feel that getting a judgment of this and being able to inform the public about it, mandates that there should be some training. Anybody can look at that tape and see that these officers need training.”
The sum, Norman said, specifically indicates serious wrongdoing, and that the taxpayers of Seaford have a right to know what they’re paying for.
“I think that, as a public entity, the citizens of Seaford need to understand that part of the money they pay in taxes, their money, is going to pay for wrongful police conduct. Some may feel outraged at the wrongful conduct causing this kind of penalty to the citizens of Seaford,” he said.
“This isn’t a budget item. This is something that’s going to be paid because they violated Mr. Johnson’s civil rights. … If you look at the sheer amount, it indicates that they recognize that something wrong was done that night.”
Norman said instances of police wrongdoing are more prevalent in Delaware than most people would think.
“A lot of times these cases are subject to a confidentiality order, where the public never knows if there was a settlement. In this particular case, we fought hard to make sure we could announce the settlement so the public could become aware of what exactly happened and, based on the amount, the public could judge for themselves whether there was some wrongdoing.”
Many law enforcement officers, Norman said, don’t know the law, which he said leads to rights’ infringements.
“A lot of officers do not know the law. They do not know the standards they need to meet in order to arrest somebody, or rather to even engage somebody,” he said. “We’ve had an officer who arrested somebody because the person didn’t show them his driver’s license, even though there was no crime.
“If an officer came up to you and said, ‘Let me see your driver’s license,’ you have the right to say, ‘No.’ As long as there’s no reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed, they can’t just come up and do that.”
Norman added that law enforcement serves a crucial role in the community, when done properly.
“We support hard-working police officers and state employees that are properly doing their job. But when somebody’s rights are violated, we have to step in. We typically accept cases where one’s rights are most severely impacted.”
Although the settlement was a victory, Norman said he believes Johnson is torn, because he wasn’t able to have his day in court.
“Civil rights cases are tough. When your civil rights have been violated, it’s hard to feel that you’ve been made whole strictly through a financial settlement. I think, after the litigation is over and you receive significant financial gain or victory, eventually you realize you stood up and were successful. But it’s not immediate.
“I would say that he’s torn. Everybody feels like they want their day in court, but they don’t necessarily understand that a day in trial has its own risks and costs. Sometimes it’s better to resolve a case through settlement. I think in time he’ll believe this was an extremely good outcome for him. Of course, there is always a little bit of let-down when the litigation is over.”
Norman said many people are unfamiliar with their rights, and therefore often don’t know when their rights have been violated. He added that civil rights protect individuals’ freedom from infringement by governments and private organizations.
“A lot of people don’t really understand their rights. Most people generally don’t have enough familiarity with the legal system to understand what their rights actually are. Anybody can educate themselves by going online and reading about civil rights. A lot of times it’s a gut feeling. If you think your rights may have been violated and you have a bad taste in your mouth, or something just doesn’t feel right, call an attorney.”
“Our attorneys are always willing to sit down with you to find out more about your potential complaint, and will tell you if we believe there’s merit to your potential claim.”
He added that some people may even be hesitant to question whether or not their rights have been violated.
“A lot of times people may not be 100 percent in the right. Maybe they had one drink too many or maybe they thought they got a little too mouthy with an officer. But your civil rights can still be violated. Even if an officer has the right to arrest you, he/she can only use a certain amount of force to effect that arrest. If you commit a minor crime and they use deadly force against you, even if you could be arrested, there’s likely a violation based on excessive force.
"In the workplace — if you think that your employer has done something illegally and you come forward, that’s potentially a claim. A lot of people don’t know that they have the right to report wrongdoing by their employer under certain circumstances. They don’t understand their rights at work.”
If someone feels their rights have been violated, Norman said, that doesn’t guarantee his firm will take the case.
“First and foremost, we want to hear what you have to say. Then we need to objectively confirm your story. We want to see everything from the other side —the police report, statements, e-mails, everything.
“If somebody hurts his/her arm and alleges it was broken, we want to see medical records. If they said they called the police and said X, we need to make sure we know they actually did call the police and did say X. We must confirm the facts as much as we can. We’ve dropped many a case after initially taking it because we found that the facts were not as presented to us.
“The last thing any firm wants is to engage in a case where the facts unfold much differently than how they were originally represented to us. We’re not out to get anybody. We’re here to protect against legitimate wrongdoing.”
Norman said his firm turns down approximately 90 percent of the cases brought to them.
“You have to be very selective with these cases, but if you pick the right case, which also means the right client, it can be very rewarding. Helping somebody stand up against the establishment, against officers or municipalities who violated your client’s rights, is a great feeling.”
The Norman Law Firm has become known for their success in civil rights and is currently working on a number of cases, including a class action suit against the City of Wilmington, as well as cases in Florida and Maryland.
“It’s really interesting, challenging work that taxes you. It truly challenges every piece of your brain. It’s not just open-and-shut, here’s a little bit of law. You have to know a wide range of law; you have to understand that state officials and police officers are allowed to make reasonable mistakes.
“It’s really when they engage in completely unreasonable or malicious conduct, where they know they’re doing something wrong… These cases are super-challenging. We put hundreds and hundreds of hours into Mr. Johnson’s case. We had a tremendous amount of work in this case.”
Over the years, the Norman Law Firm has been recognized for their success in civil rights, which Norman said is a great compliment.
“We’re a little firm. It’s nice to get the recognition from your peers — both the plaintiffs’ attorneys and defense attorneys — that you’re doing a good job,” he said. “This is an extremely, extremely tough area of the law. That gives you a feeling of accomplishment, that you did a good job.”
Norman said his firm aims to address the violation of rights and help people.
“Eventually, if you’re too good at your job, you hope things will change. Everybody wants to have continued employment, but people at these departments and offices should understand that they’re going to be held accountable for violating people’s civil rights. As we continue successfully litigating these cases, hopefully, our mark will permeate the public and change things for the better.”
For more information on the Norman Law Firm and civil rights, call (302) 537-3788 or visit www.thenormanlawfirm.com. The Norman Law Firm is located at 30838 Vines Creek Road, Unit 3, in Dagsboro.