ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- A jury has awarded $50,000 to a northern Virginia landlord who was shot three times with a stun gun when sheriff's deputies wrongly arrested him following a tenant's complaint.
Matthew Souter, 57, of The Plains, Virginia, was arrested at his home in November 2018 after a tenant in his 19th-century farmhouse claimed he had violated a protective order she had obtained a day earlier.
Before the trial began Tuesday in federal court, a judge ruled that the three Fauquier County sheriff's deputies who arrested Souter violated his constitutional rights.
The tenant claimed Souter violated the protective order by shutting off her utilities, which Souter denied. But even if he had cut off the power, Judge T.S. Ellis III said the plain language of the protective order merely barred Souter from committing acts of violence against the tenant, and shutting off the utilities would not qualify as a violation.
As a result, this week’s jury trial focused solely on the question of what damages, if any, should be awarded to Souter.
The jury decided late Thursday to award a total of $50,000 in compensatory damages, and no punitive damages.
The officers had argued that they should be held harmless; they noted that it was a magistrate who actually issued the arrest warrant, albeit at the request of one of the deputies. And they said they were entitled to qualified immunity, which protects law enforcement officers from a wide swath of legal liability.
Ellis, though, said that “qualified immunity is not for blunders,” and ruled as a matter of law that the deputies violated Souter's rights.
“If you have a lot of power, you've got to be carful how you exercise that power," Ellis told the lawyers at the trial's outset, outside the jury's presence. “It was a mistake a law enforcement officer should not have made.”
Ellis also said it's settled law that, based on rulings from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, that individuals are within their rights to resist an unlawful arrest, and that any force used to effectuate a false arrest is by definition excessive force.
On the question of damages, the deputies' lawyer, Alexander Francuzenko, asked jurors to consider the potential danger the officers faced as they weighed whether the deputies' actions were unreasonable. There was an alert in the system that warned deputies to bring backup if they were called to Souter's home, in part because of a 2015 misdemeanor conviction he had for brandishing a firearm.
One of the deputies, Andrew McCauley, testified that he used his Taser three times on Souter, and it was the first time in more than 10 years of duty that he had ever used it.
Souter, for his part, said the arrest and the Taser shots were the most excruciating pain he ever suffered in his life. He said the deputies beat and manhandled him for about seven minutes, and jurors saw photos of his bloodied face after the arrest.
Souter also said that when the officers came to arrest him, they gave him no warning. He testified that he stepped outside and gave a friendly greeting to the deputies. He said McCauley responded with a question about the electricity in his house and grabbed Souter's arm before ever telling Souter he was under arrest.
McCauley, in his own testimony, agreed that was what occurred, though he said he quickly told Souter after putting hands on him that he was under arrest.
Souter said if the officers had explained he was under arrest, he never would have resisted, even though he knew he had done nothing wrong.
“I wake up in sweats,” Souter told the jury. “I have a fear of police officers now. I've lost a lot of respect for police officers because of this.”