Raleigh Report

Raleigh pays $117K to settle lawsuit over police strip search

A Wilson man sued Raleigh police officers Dennis Riley and Eric Vigeant for detaining him in April 2014 and strip-searching him at the Northeast Outreach Center on Capital Boulevard in Raleigh.
A Wilson man sued Raleigh police officers Dennis Riley and Eric Vigeant for detaining him in April 2014 and strip-searching him at the Northeast Outreach Center on Capital Boulevard in Raleigh. aspecht@newsobserver.com

The city spent more than $208,500 fighting and settling a lawsuit filed against two Raleigh police officers by a man who claimed they wrongfully detained and humiliated him because he is black.

Charles Frails of Wilson sued officers Dennis Riley and Eric Vigeant in November 2015 for allegedly mistreating him on April 2, 2014, after Riley pulled over the driver of a car Frails was riding in. The officers claim in court documents that the driver, Lance Dickson, exceeded the speed limit and made an illegal turn – though they never charged Dickson with any traffic infractions.

Riley and Vigeant said they smelled marijuana in the car, and after searching it took Dickson and Frails to the Raleigh Northeast Outreach Center, a community center used by police, to perform a strip search. In his lawsuit, Frails claims the officers “made him bend over and cough, instructed him to lift his penis and scrotum and move each in various directions, and inspected his genitals and anus” – charges Riley and Vigeant denied in their response to the suit.

The city settled the lawsuit for $117,000 on Aug. 2 after spending $91,500 on court costs, according to John Boyette, a Raleigh spokesman.

Frails filed a complaint with the police department, and the department found that one of the officers violated a department rule about searches and seizures.

It’s unclear which rule was violated or whether the officers were reprimanded. State laws enable the city to keep personnel details and punishments secret. Riley and Vigeant remain employed by the department and are assigned to the field operations unit, according to police department spokeswoman Laura Hourigan.

City officials declined to comment further, Boyette said. And Frails declined to comment through his attorney, Narendra Ghosh of Patterson Harkavy in Chapel Hill.

Frails was riding with Dickson when Riley pulled them over in a parking lot of the McDonald’s at 3026 Capital Blvd. Riley got their IDs and looked up their criminal histories in his patrol car and found that Frails faced six outstanding criminal charges – including four felonies – in Wilson County. Vigeant then arrived on scene.

The lawsuit filed by Frails and the response filed by the officers’ attorneys show that Frails and the officers disagree over whether Dickson granted them permission to search his car. Both sides agreed that the officers found “a small quantity of marijuana” in Dickson’s sock after frisking him.

Frails’ suit says the officers detained Frails and Dickson in a patrol car for about an hour. The officers then drove them to what Frails and Dickson described as “an empty commercial space” in a mall on Capital Boulevard, which the officers identified in court documents as the city’s Northeast Outreach Center.

Frails and Dickson say they didn’t feel safe while alone with the officers and asked to be taken to jail. The officers then strip-searched Frails and Dickson.

The officers didn’t find any drugs, weapons, contraband or evidence of criminal activity on Frails, both sides agree. After the search, the officers released Frails and took Dickson to jail.

In the lawsuit, Frails claimed that Riley and Vigeant “abandoned” him in the parking lot, and the officers say Frails told them “words to the effect that someone was going to come pick him up.”

One instance of many?

News of the settlement comes amid heightened scrutiny of the police department. Raleigh’s Police Accountability Taskforce, the ACLU and some residents started calling for more police oversight in February 2016, when an officer shot and killed Akiel Denkins after a foot chase.

They asked the city council to create an independent panel to review controversial police actions. Council members rejected the request but agreed to buy cameras for police to wear on duty and to require officers to obtain written consent to search people, something not done in the Frails case.

Mayor Nancy McFarlane and Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown have also held public forums throughout the city, where they’ve encouraged residents to offer feedback on police practices and policies.

The lawsuit against the city and its continued employment of Riley and Vigeant reinforces the need for an independent oversight board to review controversial police actions, said Akiba Byrd, a PACT member and executive director of the nonprofit community development group NC Fair Share CDC.

“This is just one instance out of how many? We’ll never know,” Byrd said. “There’s a real problem of abuse gong on, and the average person doesn’t have the means to defend themselves.”

Kimberly Muktarian, a PACT member and president of Save Our Sons of Raleigh, said she was shocked at how much the department is willing to pay to protect an officer who did something wrong.

Muktarian attended the city council meeting Tuesday, where she asked Raleigh leaders to compensate the families of two men who died after being hit by a police officer in 2013. Authorities didn’t press charges against the officer, Jonathan Crews, because he was in a high-speed pursuit of another driver.

“If the city can pay for their bloopers and keep these officers on as a liability, they should be able to help the families of Maurice Hardin and Trindell Thomas,” Muktarian said, referring to the men who died in the crash.

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht