Nathaniel Hicks recalled crying three times in his adult life: when his grandmother died, when his father died, and when he was stopped by the U.S. Park Police.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit affirmed Hicks’s jury award after the officers, who were sued personally, appealed. The officers argued that the law protects government employees from such suits as long as the constitutional violation wasn’t clear from prior cases. The U.S. Supreme Court has also decreed that such lawsuits can only be brought against federal officers in an extremely narrow set of circumstances.
Hicks cleared both bars. The 4th Circuit agreed with a Maryland district judge that the officers should have known they were violating Hicks’s Fourth Amendment rights and that they did so in a way similar to the search that first led the Supreme Court to allow civil rights lawsuits against federal workers in 1971.
“We have little trouble concluding that settled law provided fair warning to the officers that their actions would constitute a deprivation of Hicks’s rights during both the first and second stops,” Judge Barbara Milano Keenan wrote for the federal appellate court in this week’s opinion.
While the two officers were found personally liable, the U.S. government still has the prerogative to pay the penalties on their behalf.
The facts of the case were largely undisputed. Ferreyra saw Hicks’s unmarked car on the shoulder of the road and approached from the passenger side for a “welfare check.” When he saw the gun in its holster on the passenger seat, Ferreyra pointed his service weapon at Hicks and repeatedly yelled, with expletives, “Don’t touch the gun.” Hicks followed orders to roll down the window and immediately identified himself as a U.S. Secret Service officer, showing his credentials. Ferreyra took the gun and credentials while continuing to yell commands at Hicks not to move.
Though there was no evidence of a crime, Ferreyra insisted that Hicks wait for a Park Police officer to arrive from Anacostia, 25 minutes away. In the meantime Phillips arrived at the scene and interrogated Hicks about whether he was sleeping and why he left his gun on the seat. Hicks did not answer — he was on the phone with his own supervisor, explaining the situation.
The motorcade, which was protecting the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, came and went without Hicks; Phillips waved as it passed. When the Park Police sergeant arrived, he talked to Hicks’s supervisor by phone and finally ended the stop.
Hicks began driving away and called his superior again to figure out where to go. But within minutes he was pulled over — by Phillips, who demanded Hicks’s license and registration. Hicks was let go a second time without a ticket.
The Park Police officers maintained that they acted reasonably in a confusing situation.
Ferreyra testified at trial that Hicks escalated the interaction by initially reaching for his gun.
“I did everything appropriately,” he said. “No shots were fired.”
Phillips testified that he did not realize when he pulled Hicks over the second time that it was the same car he had just seen and acted because the car was swerving.
“I originally thought that probably the driver of that vehicle possibly could have been drunk,” he said, “then thought, well, he’s not drunk, he’s just on the phone.” On-duty law enforcement officers can talk on the phone while driving in Maryland.
Hicks denied doing anything to draw concern before either incident. He told jurors that the officers were needlessly “belligerent,” an assessment backed up by his supervisor who could hear the yelling through the phone. (It was so loud, he testified, that his own driver heard it as well.) Hicks, the supervisor testified, “was professional and polite the entire time.”
Hicks testified that at the first stop, Phillips asked, “Why are you here in our district? This is the Park Police district.” (Evidence of an alleged “turf war” between the two federal law enforcement agencies was excluded from the trial.) During the second stop, Phillips told Hicks he was “getting mouthy.”
They “flexed and abused their power and authority as police officers to try to put Agent Hicks in his place,” Hicks’s attorney, Jia Cobb, told jurors at the end of the trial. Cobb is now a federal judge in D.C.
Jurors specifically ruled in their verdict that neither Park Police officer was truthful about their motivations and that their actions were not reasonable or in line with Park Police practice.
Hicks testified that he was emotionally scarred by the experience, becoming alienated at work and distant at home as he obsessed over what happened and how it could have led to his death.
“I felt completely helpless that here I was, an African-American male that was surrounded by all Caucasian officers,” Hicks testified at the trial, according to a transcript. “I just felt very disgusted at the time and just very upset and scared.”
An attorney for the officers said they disagree that Hicks should have been allowed to sue under Supreme Court precedent and that they “are considering all available options to continue this fight.”
Hicks and his attorneys declined to comment.