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‘Gone Rogue’: North Carolina Man Awarded $50K After Officer Lies About Smelling Crack to Approve Strip Search

A North Carolina sheriff’s deputy has been ordered to pay $50,000 to a Black man who was stopped and frisked over four years ago, according to a lawsuit obtained by Atlanta Black Star.

A federal judge agreed with Marcus Hyatt that Buncombe County deputy Jeff May violated his constitutional rights because of a strip search at a highway gas station in Asheville in January 2018.

The judge also found that race motivated the deputy to falsely claim that he smelled crack cocaine on Hyatt and to complete a field drug test finding a tiny bit of substance was positive for cocaine.

U.S. District Court judge Martin Reidinger said his Aug. 3 decision was based on “May’s unlawful search and seizure, the humiliation and degradation that Plaintiff Hyatt suffered as a result of the unreasonable strip search and the fear and anxiety caused by Defendant May’s actions in displaying a weapon and in fabricating evidence in order to obtain the search warrant.”

Buncombe County sheriff’s deputies strip search Marcus Hyatt in January 2018. (Photo: Getty Images/Oliver Helbig)

A jury in March 2021 had already found that May went against his duty as a deputy by obtaining a search warrant “based on information he knew to be false and displaying a weapon.

“In short, the jury found Defendant May to have ‘gone rogue,’ ” Reidinger said.

According to the lawsuit filed in August 2019, May was part of the Buncombe County Anti-Crime Task Force, “well known in the community for its cowboy-type tactics.”

Hyatt was a passenger in a car driven by Brandon Pickens, who is also Black. Another deputy J.D. Lambert pulled over the vehicle because Pickens did not use a turn signal.

According to the lawsuit, Hyatt and Dickens were handcuffed and searched for three-and-a-half hours and were subjected to a K-9 unit after May arrived on the scene. In addition, the lawsuit alleges they were forced to expose themselves for cavity searches in “unsanitary, unreasonable and outrageous conditions such that would shock the common understanding of decency.”

Sheriff deputy Katherine Lewis went to the home of Hyatt’s then-girlfriend, Ashley Barrett, and pulled her over as she was leaving to pick up her child. She had left the scene before the search was over. Barrett said she was coerced into allowing Lewis to search her home and vehicle. She said Lewis and Lambert threatened to seize her car and take her children.

Reidinger said Hyatt had a “legitimate” reason to fear that drugs would be planted on his clothing once he removed his clothes.”

The suit adds, “After all, Plaintiff Hyatt had been detained for approximately three hours by this point, with the officers finding no illegal substances or items during multiple searches,” the judge wrote. “Further, Defendant May had already made false statements regarding the smell of crack cocaine and finding a substance in the vehicle that tested positive for cocaine.”

The deputies did not find any illegal substances and the men were ultimately let go.

Hyatt and Barrett had asked for a combined $500,000 for their “physical injury, personal humiliation, mental anguish and suffering.”

The judge, however, dismissed Barrett’s claim and those against the other deputies, Quentin Miller, the county’s first Black sheriff and former sheriff Van Duncan.

The jury found that Lambert conducted the strip search based on the information he received from May, who claimed the cocaine he detected was destroyed in the field test device.

According to the Citizen Times, May is now a Buncombe County detective. He was sued as an individual and is required to pay the verdict. Lewis is no longer a deputy, but Lambert’s employment status is unclear.

Hyatt’s attorney, Brian Elston, said his client was content with the ruling despite winning monetary damages less than what was sought. Still, Elston said he is considering filing motions to recover costs and attorneys’ fees.

“What we had asked for was for the court to find that what happened to our client was wrong and to hold someone accountable, and that is exactly what happened. And that is worth more to my client than any amount of money than he could have received,” Elston said.

May’s attorney could also file motions of his own. He has 30 days to appeal the ruling.

Peoples tried to create doubts about Hyatt’s credibility and dispute claims of May’s malicious intent. Peoples said deputies did not touch Hyatt and allowed him to take his own clothes off. The body camera showed, according to Peoples, that the officers were polite and also searched Dickens. He said Hyatt did not mention the gun in earlier statements.

“We maintain that the jury got it wrong, and we are investigating options to set the record straight,” Peoples said.

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