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Innocent USC prof’s $200,075 jury verdict in bungled DUI case upheld by SC court

Innocent USC prof’s $200,075 jury verdict in bungled DUI case upheld by SC court

It took just 41 minutes for a Richland County jury to award a popular University of South Carolina professor $200,075 for a bungled DUI arrest by a Columbia police officer.

And now, three years later, a state Court of Appeals panel has upheld the verdict.

In a ruling earlier this month, the Court of Appeals three-judge panel unanimously ruled that the award, for false imprisonment and malicious prosecution to USC-Lancaster professor Darris Hassell, should stand.

Columbia city officials, who had appealed the 2017 verdict, said Tuesday they would decline comment since the matter is still pending. The city could either pay Hassell the $200,075 or explore several legal avenues of possible appeal.

The facts of the case, which played out over a three-day trial in May 2017, focused on the officer’s conduct:

In February 2014, former Columbia police officer Cameron Duecker pulled Hassell over in downtown Columbia, informed him he’d made an improper turn and then told him he smelled alcohol on the professor’s breath.

That astonished Hassell because, as the professor testified at his trial, he doesn’t drink.

As a crowd gathered to watch, Duecker gave Hassell several field sobriety tests, told him he had flunked, handcuffed him and took him to jail. At the jail, Hassell blew 0.0 on a breath alcohol analyzing machine, meaning he had not been drinking.

At that point, Duecker claimed Hassell had been taking drugs and drove him to then-Palmetto Health Richland, where the professor, still handcuffed, took a urine test. Then the officer returned Hassell to jail, where he stayed 16 hours in a cell packed with about 10 other people.

Once out of jail, Hassell asked for a jury trial on his DUI charge. But the city dropped that charge. Hassell then sued.

“No one even bothered to say they were sorry,” Hassell told a reporter after his trial.

Evidence at the professor’s trial showed the city had lost the urine sample along with dash cam video footage of his arrest and the field tests.

“Hassell testified he missed work, was embarrassed and humiliated, felt helpless, had to call his aunt from jail and hear her cry, knew his mother would find out and had to explain the incident to the USC-Lancaster administration,” the Court of Appeals panel noted.

Hassell, who teaches Spanish at USC-Lancaster, is a natural musician who plays piano by ear and for more than 20 years has led hymns and the choir at Brown Chapel AME Church near Columbia.

A graduate of Columbia’s Keenan High and Wofford College, Hassell commutes from Columbia to Lancaster when classes are in session.

Throughout his ordeal, Hassell — who describes himself as soft-spoken — remained calm, evidence at the trial showed.

In an interview Tuesday, Hassell said he was glad the court upheld the verdict that showed he was innocent. From the time of his arrest, he was confident that things would end well, he said.

“I knew a jury of my peers would hear my side of the story,” Hassell said. “They (the city) had nothing to stand on.”

“I still remember that trial like it was yesterday,” Hassell said. “The experience was in 2014, but by the time the trial rolled around, it was a matter of living it all over again. And now all these levels of appeals, it is like it’s still hanging out there.”

Hassell is African American; the former officer is white. But race did not play an overt role at the trial. The jury consisted of eight whites and four African Americans. At the time of the trial, the officer was no longer with the city.

In its appeal, the city argued that the jury award to Hassell was excessive. During the trial, a city lawyer told the jury if it had to award the professor any money, it should only give him $6,475 — calculated at about $400 per hour for the time he was in custody, plus the $75 Hassell had to pay to get his car back after it was towed.

Hassell’s attorney, Paul Reeves of Columbia, had asked the jury for an award of about five times Hassell’s annual salary. Reeves declined comment Tuesday except to say, “Obviously, we are pleased with the decision.”

The city also argued that the foreperson of the jury had concealed the fact that they had been arrested by a Columbia police officer in the past. But the panel, made up of judges Paula Thomas, Aphrodite Konduros and Stephanie McDonald, rejected that argument.

Lawyers for the city were Chad Johnston of Columbia, Robert Humphrey II of Charleston and Columbia city attorney Teresa Knox.

Judge Casey Manning presided at Hassell’s 2017 trial.

Hassell said Tuesday, “I’m still looking for the city just to own up to that, you know, it was responsible. I don’t know why we have to drag it out for six years.”

Suspected drunk driver takes out CenturyLink box

Exposed wires were all that was left of a CenturyLink pedestal box at the corner of Valley View and Shadow Point drives after a suspected drunk driver hit it in St. George, Utah, on July 9, 2020. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News 

ST. GEORGE — A man who police say was intoxicated behind the wheel slammed and took out a CenturyLink relay box in St. George, potentially knocking out internet and landline phone service for customers in the area.

The remnants of a CenturyLink pedestal box at the corner of Valley View and Shadow Point drives after a suspected drunk driver hit it in St. George, Utah, on July 9, 2020. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

The crash took place around 2:10 p.m. at the corner of Valley View Drive and Shadow Point Drive in the northern portion of the city.

Police said the man was driving a Honda Pilot south on Valley View when he swerved across three lanes into the northbound side of traffic. The SUV didn’t hit any other vehicle but ended up on the sidewalk, crashing into the CenturyLink pedestal box and then a cinder-block wall before ending up back in the northbound lanes, blocking the corner and oncoming traffic.

St. George Police were on scene to direct traffic around the crash. What was left of the CenturyLink box was shattered all over the sidewalk and into the street. All that was left where the box had stood was a string of exposed wires and cables.

A representative for CenturyLink was not able to indicate the number of customers affected or how long the outage would continue, though they said a technician would be out around 5 p.m. A city of St. George maintenance vehicle arrived on scene to ensure there would be no potential hazards from the exposed wires.

Police took time to inspect the SUV, which was full of painting equipment and other materials that filled the passenger space of the vehicle.

St. George Police Sgt. Tyrell Bangerter said the driver, the sole occupant of the vehicle, was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving. The man, in his 20s to 30s, was not injured. The driver-side airbag was deployed in his vehicle.

Each crash has a lesson to tell, and Bangerter said the lesson of this incident was simple.

“Don’t drive impaired,” he said.

Granby woman arrested for driving under influence of drugs in Ludlow

LUDLOW, MA (WGGB/WSHM) — A Granby woman was arrested Saturday for driving under the influence of drugs, police said.

On Saturday, July 4 just before 5 p.m., an officer on patrol saw a red 2006 Dodge Caravan parked diagonally across an entrance way, which was closed off by a gate, in the area of 673 West Street, police said.

The officer conducted a welfare check on the operator — who was the only one in the car — after noticing the car’s brake lights were activated for an extended time, police said.

The operator was found slumped over the wheel with no obvious signs of breathing, police said. Ludlow Fire Department Paramedics were requested to respond. A hypodermic needle and a blue elastic tourniquet, consistent with illicit narcotics use, along with an open container of an alcoholic beverage were seen within reach of the operator as the officer attempted to rouse her, police said.

After refusing medical treatment, the operator failed a series of roadside assessments conducted by the Ludlow Police Department’s Drug Recognition Expert, police said.

Driver Nancy Mestre, 49, of Granby was placed under arrest for operating under the influence of drugs.

Additional suspected narcotics were discovered during a standard booking inventory at the Police Department. Mestre was charged with possession of a Class B drug, possession of a Class E drug and an open container violation.

Judge won’t toss evidence in lawmaker’s DUI case

LONDON, Ky. (AP) — A state lawmaker will face a jury trial in September after unsuccessfully trying this week to have evidence in his drunken driving case thrown out, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported.

State Rep. Derek Lewis was arrested near his home at 1:55 a.m. on April 16, just a few hours after the 2020 General Assembly adjourned in Frankfort.

The arrest came after Laurel County Sheriff’s Deputy Gary Mehler spotted a Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck in a ditch with the engine still running. When Lewis climbed out of the truck he was unsteady on his feet, slurring his words and smelled strongly of alcohol, according to the arrest report. Lewis was belligerent and refused to perform a field sobriety test or to provide breath or blood samples to check his alcohol level, Mehler wrote.

At a Tuesday hearing, the London Republican asked the court to suppress evidence from the arrest. One motion claimed that the deputy had no probable cause to suspect Lewis of operating a vehicle while intoxicated because state law “defines ‘operator’ as the person in actual physical control of the vehicle” and “the vehicle was in a ditch and not being operated at the time of the stop.”

In the second motion, Lewis argued that evidence of his refusing to take the blood test should be suppressed because blood tests must be administered within two hours to be scientifically reliable, and there is no evidence showing when the truck went into the ditch. Refusal to submit to a sobriety test can increase the penalty in a DUI case.

Judge W. L. “Skip” Hammons Jr. denied both motions.

“Mr. Lewis is presumed innocent,” his attorney, Conrad Cessna, told the paper.

Driver Arrested for DUI After Allegedly Hitting, Killing 6-Year-Old Girl

Waterbury Police

The driver of a vehicle that was involved in a collision that killed a 6-year-old girl and injured two others in Waterbury on Sunday has been arrested for allegedly driving under the influence, police said.

Officers were called to Baldwin Street around 9:30 p.m. after getting a report of a collision involving pedestrians.

When police arrived, they said they found a van had rear-ended another vehicle parked off to the right side of the northbound lane of Baldwin Street. 

Officers said the impact pushed the second vehicle forward and hit a 29-year-old woman and a 6-year-old girl between it and a third vehicle. 

A 30-year-old man that was hit by the second vehicle was thrown to the sidewalk, police added.

According to investigators, the woman and the child that were hit by the vehicle were transported to St. Mary’s Hospital to be treated for serious, life-threatening injuries. The man who was thrown to the sidewalk obtained medical treatment for non-life threatening injuries.

The 6-year-old girl was pronounced dead at 10:16 p.m., police said. She was transported to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to determine the manner and cause of death and identification. 

The woman is in stable condition and remains hospitalized, authorities added.

The driver of the van, later identified by authorities as 39-year-old Luis Loja, of Waterbury, left the scene on foot, but officers said witnesses followed him down Glen Street and convinced him to return to the accident scene.

Police said they determined Loja was operating the van while impaired by alcohol at the time of the collision.

Loja was arrested and officers said he is facing charges including manslaughter with a motor vehicle, assault with a motor vehicle, operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, evading responsibility in accident resulting in death, operation of an uninsured motor vehicle, improper use of registration plate, operating an unregistered motor vehicle, operating a motor vehicle without a license and failure to drive in the proper lane.

Loja was held on a $750,000 bond pending arraignment.