Appeals Court rules for Chapel Hill police officer in arrest complaint

CorrespondentApril 1, 2014 

— A Chapel Hill police officer acted reasonably and without malice when he stopped and arrested a man in 2009 he thought was someone else, according to the N.C. Court of Appeals.

But in a strongly worded dissenting opinion, one member of the three-judge panel said the majority opinion undermines the man’s Fourth Amendment protections against illegal search and seizure.

Charles D. Brown, who owned a barbershop on West Rosemary Street, had just closed after working late June 1, 2009, when he began walking to his girlfriend's home in Carrboro. Officer D. Funk stopped him, handcuffed him and held him in custody before eventually releasing him.

Funk claims he thought Brown was Cuman Fearrington, who was wanted on outstanding warrants. Once he determined Brown was not Fearrington, Funk let Brown go.

Brown claimed Funk did not request his identification before arresting him, that Funk made disparaging remarks to him, and that Funk continued to hold him long after he had shown his identification.

Brown sued Funk and the Chapel Hill Police Department, claiming false imprisonment, assault and violation of his constitutional rights.

In a hearing in August 2012, Superior Court Judge Carl Fox dismissed most of Brown's claims through summary judgment, but he allowed Brown's claim of false imprisonment to go forward.

The issue for the Court of Appeals was whether Funk was protected by public immunity laws, which protect public officials from being sued while doing their jobs. The judges had to decide whether Funk acted outside the boundaries of his position and with malice, or ill will.

Brown claimed that even after he showed Funk his identification, Funk continued to hold him in handcuffs, asking the 911 communicator to verify his identification and to check to see if other towns or counties had warrants for him.

The appeals court decided Funk did act reasonably in arresting Brown because Brown looked like Fearrington.

The statements Funk made, including sarcastically asking, “Oh? You own a business?” showed Funk acted disrespectfully and unprofessionally, but it did not show malice, and therefore Funk is entitled to the defense of public immunity, according to the majority opinion written by Judge Robert C. Hunter.

However, Judge Martha Geer, had a different opinion.

While she agreed Funk had reasonable suspicion to stop Brown to check his identification, he did not have probable cause to arrest him.

“The majority holds it is permissible, when an officer suspects an individual is another person to arrest that person and then seek identification,” Geer wrote. “That holding is an extraordinary undermining of the protections of the Fourth Amendment.”

Even after Brown showed Funk his ID, Funk disregarded it, she wrote.

“A reasonable juror could find that it was unreasonable to disregard the identification and that the ‘verification’ of plaintiff's identity – and the subsequent search of NCIC for outstanding warrants – was really an attempt to cover up the officer’s mistake in hopes of manufacturing probable cause to detain plaintiff,” Geer wrote.

Funk should have released Brown as soon as he knew he had made a mistake, Geer wrote.

Because of her dissenting opinion, the decision allows the case to be appealed to the N.C. Supreme Court.

Brown’s attorney, Al McSurely, said Brown will definitely appeal.

No matter what the Supreme Court decides, Brown’s claim of false imprisonment against the Police Department will still go forward, McSurely said.

If the Supreme Court reverses the appeals court’s decision, then the case will also go forward against Funk as well, he said.

Velliquette: bavelliquette@gmail.com

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