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$5M suit filed against Augusta County deputies alleges ‘excessive force’ in 2020 arrest

Chris Graham
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A $5 million lawsuit filed against Augusta County Sheriff Donald Smith and four of his deputies over what happened in an Oct. 8, 2020, traffic stop appears headed toward a federal jury trial.

Waynesboro resident Marvin W. Harris alleges in his suit, filed pro se – the legal term goes back to the Latin for “in one’s own behalf,” referring to a plaintiff who files a case without the aid of an attorney – that he sustained multiple injuries while being forcibly removed from the passenger seat of a truck and then tased multiple times before deputies kicked and beat him into unconsciousness.

Lawyers for Smith and the deputies, in a legal brief filed last week, denied that the incident played out the way Harris laid out in his complaint, which was filed last year, and also denied that Harris should be entitled to any compensation for his injuries, claiming that the deputies “had to utilize force to gain Plaintiff’s compliance with orders to exit the vehicle, effect an arrest, and prevent further assault on themselves and others.”

“Defendants assert that the force used was objectively reasonable and necessary,” the lawyers wrote in their brief.

A federal judge ruled last month, in response to a motion to dismiss filed by the lawyers for Smith and the four deputies – investigators Christopher Rosemeier, Christopher Hilliard and CJ Taylor, and Cpl. Jonathan Wells – that the case will proceed in the direction of being able to go before a jury.

The request to dismiss the case focused on the date the suit was filed – Oct. 11, 2022, which, the defendants said, came three days after the end of the two-year statute of limitations for a general personal-injury claim.

James P. Jones, the Senior U.S. District Judge in the Western District of Virginia, wrote in a June 26 ruling on that matter that because Oct. 8, 2022, fell on a Saturday, and the following Monday, Oct. 10, 2022, was Columbus Day, a federal holiday, “Rule 6(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that if the last day of the time period being calculated is ‘a Saturday, Sunday, or legal holiday, the period continues to run until the end of the  next day that is not a Saturday, Sunday, or legal holiday,’” thus the complaint from Harris, “docketed on Tuesday, October 11, 2022, was timely filed.”

With that, Jones moved the case toward the scheduling of a jury trial, and to that end, attorneys for the sheriff and the deputies, who are being represented by the Staunton firm TimberlakeSmith, wrote in a filing, dated July 26, that they “acknowledge Plaintiff’s request for a jury trial,” and asserted that “(d)efendants also request a jury trial.”

If things actually get that far, attorneys for the two sides – Harris, according to a July 21 court filing, is now being represented by Amina Matheny-Willard, a Norfolk-based attorney who has also represented Mike Donovan and Richard Moore, the co-owners of Nexus Services, who have been involved in a running feud with Smith that dates back several years – will try to focus jurors on their competing narratives of exactly what it was that happened at that October 2020 traffic stop.

According to Harris’ legal filings – his original Oct. 11, 2022, complaint, and an amended complaint dated Jan. 5, 2023 – he had agreed to help a friend move furniture on the night of Oct. 8, 2020, but asked the friend, after she stopped at a store to buy cigarettes, then hung around in the store for “30 minutes or more,” to take him home because he didn’t want to be out too late.

He wrote in the amended complaint that the friend refused his request to drive him home and instead “drove the opposite way,” and as he was on the phone with a third person to explain what was going on, the friend’s truck was pulled over, apparently for speeding.

According to Harris’ complaint, Wells and a second deputy, Sgt. Aaron Will, asked Harris to identify himself, and Harris said he “politely declined,” explaining in his complaint that because he “wasn’t driving the truck, I didn’t feel he had the right to ask me that.”

The response from the attorneys for Smith and his deputies on this point is that the sheriff’s office had received a tip “from a reliable confidential informant that Plaintiff was a passenger in (the) vehicle,” and that the deputies at the scene were acting on an outstanding felony arrest warrant out for Harris for a drug-related offense.

“Defendants admit that during the stop, Plaintiff was instructed to identify himself, and he refused,” the filing reads. “Defendants admit that Cpl. Wells attempted to open Plaintiff’s door, but it was locked. Defendants admit that Plaintiff refused to unlock the door and exit the vehicle despite Cpl. Wells’s order to do so.”

Harris, in his amended complaint, alleges that “neither one of the cops never said anything about a warrant or asked me to get out of the car.”

“Instead of asking me or telling me I had a warrant, Officer Rosemeier ran up to the truck and jumped on the side step rail and punched me through the window in my right eye,” Harris alleged.

“He yelled, Get out of the car you black motherfucker, while grabbing and clawing at my neck while I was sitting in my seat belt,” Harris wrote.

Harris would go on to claim that he would be thrown to the ground, cuffed, tased several times, then punched and kicked repeatedly, to the point that “I urinated on myself and went unconscious.”

Harris, in the complaint, said the beating left him with a broken jaw, broken nose, several chipped teeth and several head and face lacerations.

To these allegations, the response from the attorneys for Smith and the deputies is that Harris “refused orders to identify himself and to exit the vehicle,” that Harris “assaulted Invs. Rosemeier and Hilliard causing physical injury to Inv. Rosemeier,” and that the deputies “had to utilize force to gain Plaintiff’s compliance with orders to exit the vehicle, effect an arrest, and prevent further assault on themselves and others.”

The response also points out that Harris pleaded guilty in 2021 to two counts of felony assault and battery on a law enforcement officer, and online court information shows that Harris, indeed, did plead guilty to those charges on March 31, 2021, and was given two consecutive five-year sentences, with four years and 23 days of each of the sentences suspended.

A jury, if the case ends up getting that far, would have to weigh Harris’ guilty pleas against his claims that the deputies were vague in their interactions with him and used excessive force in the course of the arrest.

That was a point that Harris drove home in his amended complaint, which he concluded by asking the court to hold Smith accountable “for his officers’ excessive force and the neglect by the Augusta County Sheriff’s Department.”

“My mother filed two complaints, one as soon as two days after his happen(ed), and nothing was done. Donald Smith wouldn’t even return her calls,” Harris wrote. “He’s taking all this lightly and didn’t even question his officers, let alone reprimand them.

“All of this would be simple if (his) officers wore body cameras, but his department chooses not to because of incidents like this. So I ask that he be held accountable for his actions along with his officers.”

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].