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

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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.”

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