Cop cuffed cursing man, who will get his day in court

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Georgia man arrested and placed in tight handcuffs on Christmas Eve after cursing at a police officer will have his day in court on his civil rights claim. A federal district judge has ruled that a former Georgia State Patrol officer violated the man’s First, Fourth and Eighth Amendment rights during the incident.

The incident occurred on Dec. 24, 2008, in Houston County, Ga., in the parking lot of a nursing home where Lawrence Merenda worked. Georgia State Patrol officer Justin Tabor had issued a ticket to Merenda’s daughter, Laurie, who had pulled into the parking lot to visit her father. Tabor cited Laurie for improperly wearing her seatbelt under her arm. Laurie called her father to tell him of the situation.

Merenda came outside and approached Tabor’s patrol car. He asked the officer to give his daughter a break, calling the offense a minor infraction and saying his daughter had financial problems. Tabor responded: “Well, you being a parent, you should understand. Having a seatbelt on that way, she won’t get thrown out of the car, but if you’re okay with having her head smashed against the steering wheel, as a parent that’s up to you.”

Merenda walked away from Tabor’s car and muttered “fucking asshole.” The remark apparently upset Tabor, who pursued Merenda and ordered him to stop, turn around and place his hands behind his back. Tabor then placed Merenda in a choke hold and bent him over the trunk of a car. He arrested Merenda for a felony charge of obstruction.

Although Merenda repeatedly complained that the handcuffs were too tight, Tabor ignored his requests to loosen them before finally doing so. Tabor then took Merenda to Houston County jail. He was released on Christmas Day and the charge was reduced to a misdemeanor. Prosecutors eventually dropped the criminal charges against him.

However, in December 2010, Merenda filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Tabor, alleging violations of his rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment, from retaliation for protected speech under the First Amendment, and from excessive force under the Eighth Amendment.

Tabor argued that he was entitled to qualified immunity against the claims. The qualified-immunity defense protects government officials unless they violate clearly established constitutional law. Tabor said he had a right to arrest Merenda for either obstruction or disorderly conduct.

U.S. District Judge Marc T. Treadwell rejected Tabor’s motion for summary judgment May 7 and instead ruled that he had violated Merenda’s constitutional rights in his opinion in Merenda v. Tabor.

Treadwell reasoned that Tabor did not have probable cause to arrest Merenda for obstruction. The judge cited U.S. Supreme Court case law, including City of Houston v. Hill (1987), for the principle that police officers are held to a higher standard than other people and should restrain themselves. “[T]he freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state,” the Supreme Court wrote in that case.

Treadwell concluded that Tabor “had no arguable probable cause to arrest [Merenda] for misdemeanor obstruction or disorderly conduct.” Merenda’s speech was “protected by the First Amendment, he added, and concluded by saying that “a trial will be held on the issue of damages.”

“I am very pleased with this ruling,” said Macon-based attorney Charles E. Cox Jr., who represents Merenda. “I am not an apologist for someone using salty language, but that is not the role of law enforcement to arrest someone for using inappropriate language.” Cox expressed confidence that his client would be vindicated when the case goes before a jury because the officer’s conduct was “malicious from the outset.”

A call placed to the Georgia Attorney general’s office was not returned.

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