RICHMOND, Va. - A federal appeals court has ruled a district judge did not err in overriding a jury’s verdict in favor of a former Wood County sheriff’s deputy in a civil suit alleging he brutalized a Parkersburg man.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on Aug. 13 affirmed Judge Joseph R. Goodwin’s decision last year granting judgment as a matter of law to Brian Sawyer in his civil rights suit against Jim Asbury. A three-judge panel agreed unanimously with Goodwin that despite the jury siding with Asbury, video evidence presented at trial was sufficient to prove he violated Sawyer’s constitutional rights when he punched and broke his nose.
In his suit filed in October 2010, Sawyer alleged Asbury used excessive force in arresting and detaining him on charges of domestic battery a year earlier. The crux of Sawyer’s case and the subsequent appeal rested on his allegation that after first conducting a pat-down shortly after arriving at the Wood County Detention Center and then exchanging words, Asbury pulled him by his “upper chest and throat area” out of a seated position, and then punched him at least once in the face.
Though a jury on April 25, 2012, ruled Sawyer did not prove his case against Asbury, Goodwin on May 18, 2012, granted a motion filed by Sawyer’s attorney John Bryan overruling the jury’s verdict and granting judgment for Sawyer. In his ruling, Goodwin said though it was undisputed Sawyer was verbally abusive to Asbury, that was not a license for Asbury to punch him in the head.
“Mr. Sawyer walked into the holding cell uninjured,” Goodwin said, “and he left with a fractured nose, and battered face. While Mr. Sawyer’s verbal threats were disgusting, they were still only words, and a pretrial detainee’s words do not justify an officer’s use of such force.”
“I find that no reasonable jury was at liberty to disregard the video evidence showing Deputy Asbury chocking and punching Mr. Sawyer for no purpose other than inflicting unnecessary pain and suffering,” Goodwin added.
“I find that Deputy Asbury thereby violated Mr. Sawyer’s right under the Due Process Clause to be free of excessive force while in pretrial detention.”
In a 37-page opinion, Judge Ellen Lipton Hollander said the video of Asbury punching Sawyer is key to the case. It alone was enough for Sawyer to prove Asbury’s actions were excessive.
“In sum,” Hollander wrote, “under the facts of this case, Asbury’s deployment of a blow to the head of Sawyer, a detainee, in response to mere insulting words, and noncompliance with the deputy’s orders, was excessive. Such conduct did not constitute a good faith effort to restore discipline.
“The district court understood the import of video evidence, which indisputably shows that Deputy Asbury used force that was excessive under the circumstances. Accordingly, the district court did not err in granting Sawyer’s motion for judgment as a matter of law.”
Throughout the case, Asbury was represented by Wendy E. Greve and Katie L. Hicklin with the Charleston law firm of Pullin, Fowler, Flanagan, Brown and Poe. Currently, he is a deputy sheriff in Ritchie County.
U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, case number 10-cv-1256
Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, case number 12-2123