A North Carolina deputy who ordered a strip search of two Black men after falsely claiming to smell crack cocaine could be required to pay the attorneys’ fees for one of the men who sued him for his actions.
A federal jury and a judge found that Buncombe Sheriff’s Deputy Jeff May violated Marcus Hyatt’s Fourth Amendment rights during the 2018 traffic stop and was motivated by racial discrimination. U.S. District Court Judge Martin Reidinger awarded a $50,000 judgment in favor of Hyatt on Aug. 3.
It remains unclear if the county would pay the award on the deputy’s behalf or if he will be liable. However, Hyatt’s lawyers have asked the court to make the deputy pay nearly $262,000 in attorney fees for their client.
May stopped Hyatt and another Black man, Brandon Pickens, in January 2018 because Pickens did not use his turn signal. According to reports, the search warrant applications referred to the men’s past drug convictions. Deputies had reportedly received a tip from a neighbor concerned that drugs were being sold in a house where Hyatt and Pickens lived. One of the deputies, who was later removed from the suit, had followed the men from the house in patrol car with a drug-sniffing dog, reports show.
After claiming to smell cocaine “emitting from Hyatt’s person,” May said he detected the drug in a field test. Pickens and May were ordered to remove their clothes in a bathroom stall at a gas station after they were detained for three and a half hour search. No drugs were ever recovered, nor was sample entered into evidence.
“We were intimidated, harassed and basically kidnapped because they held us so long,” Hyatt said in a March interview.
Hyatt’s attorneys, who filed the lawsuit in May 2019, said the decision to take on his case” was not made lightly and involved some soul searching.” They acknowledged that they anticipated that winning the case and collecting damages would be difficult, especially if the deputy has immunity. The final award was hundreds of thousands less than the $500,000 Hyatt and the team sought for the claim.
“First, since there was no body cam footage of important key issues, the case would boil down to Plaintiff Hyatt’s word versus the word of three sworn law enforcement officers. Second, even if Plaintiff Hyatt’s word was accepted, law enforcement officers are entitled to considerable immunity protections,” they wrote.
Hyatt’s three attorneys also had to hire a legal assistant, which cost $2,417. Under their previous arrangement, Hyatt had agreed to pay the legal team a 33 percent contingency fee from any damages. However, the attorneys have not confirmed if Hyatt would have to give them the $16,665 if the judge denies the request for the attorneys’ fees.
According to Citizen-Times, May, who was promoted to a second-level detective in November 2019, makes $57,491 a year. His lawyer has hinted he plans to appeal the final ruling before the deadline at the end of the month.
“We are in the process of preparing our responses to this motion and the judgment upon which it is based. You can expect to hear from us near the end of August,” he said.