Law Enforcement Accountability is an Issue in N.C. Even if the Spotlight is Elsewhere

Law Enforcement Accountability is an Issue in N.C. Even if the Spotlight is Elsewhere

A spotlight has been on law enforcement over the past several weeks. Whether it was the unnecessary death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in May or the recent reports of unidentified men detaining protesters in unmarked vehicles in Portland on July 16, the spotlight remains bright. But it can be understandably difficult for North Carolinians to understand how what’s happening in Minnesota or Oregon might impact them when it comes to law-enforcement accountability.

Although the spotlight isn’t pointed at The Tar Heel State now, that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be someday. In fact, just earlier this month, the North Carolina Court of Appeals issued a divided opinion squarely addressing the issue of excessive force by a police officer. Yet, without local media attention (or diligence and a paid subscription to legal-specific media outlets), it can be very hard for NC residents to understand how these issues impact them directly. 

A 60-year-old man faced charges after being “body slammed” by an unidentified man in his own driveway.

On Aug. 23, 2017, Bruce Allen Bartley, a 60-year-old, pulled into his driveway like he would any other day. According to him, the events leading up to then that day were equally unremarkable. 

City of High Point Officer Matt Blackman told a different story. Although his “official job duty is as a detective in the Violent Crimes Unit,” Officer Blackman decided to make a traffic stop that day after he reportedly saw Mr. Bartley pass a slow-moving truck over a double yellow line. Officer Blackman activated his lights and siren and believed he drove close enough to Mr. Bartley’s vehicle that he should have noticed. Mr. Bartley says he didn’t. 

In any event, Officer Blackman purportedly became concerned that Mr. Bartley was trying to evade him. He was also skeptical when Mr. Bartley pulled into his driveway because. According to the officer, people try to get away from law enforcement by pulling in driveways and parking.

When Mr. Bartley pulled in his driveway, Officer Blackman pulled in behind him. By that point, he had deactivated his siren. Officer Blackman then got out of his car and ordered Mr. Bartley back into his vehicle. Mr. Bartley declined, stating “that he was on private property,” and walked toward the back of his vehicle.

Once Mr. Bartley had turned his back, he says, “Officer Blackman ‘body slammed’ him against the trunk of his car, handcuffed him, and informed him that he was being detained.”

It’s a popular myth these days: Just do what the officer says, and it will be okay.

Why wouldn’t he comply with the officer’s orders and just get back in his car? After all, that is a common response to anyone who offers even the slightest bit of criticism of law enforcement these days: Just do what the police tell you to do, and you’ll be fine. That is, of course, a myth in and of itself when it comes to law-enforcement accountability.

But, even if that advice worked in theory, it still wouldn’t have worked here. The reason why is simple: Mr. Bartley didn’t know Officer Blackman was a police officer. According to the Court of Appeals opinion, Officer Blackman was driving an unmarked car, that he never identified himself as a police officer, and that he was wearing plainclothes. In fact, even when Officer Blackman got out of his car, Mr. Bartley said, the officer’s car door “blocked the police badge at his waist from [Mr. Bartley’s] view.”

After purportedly “body slamming” Mr. Bartley to the trunk of his car, Officer Blackman handcuffed him and charged him with resisting, delaying, or obstructing an officer “for ignoring his commands and tensing his arm while being handcuffed” and for passing over a double yellow line.

Although a court dismissed the charges after Mr. Bartley completed driving school and community service, he subsequently sought law-enforcement accountability when he filed a lawsuit against Officer Blackman and the City of High Point in Dec. of 2018. In the suit, he alleged assault and battery, false imprisonment or false arrest, and malicious prosecution.

In a 2-1 divided opinion, the Court of Appeals let Mr. Bartley’s claims against Officer Blackman to move forward on a narrow path.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals only addressed one narrow issue in its July 7, 2020 opinion: whether “public official immunity” protected Officer Blackman from liability. In the majority opinion authored by Judge John Arrowood, the Court agreed with the trial court and ruled that a trial must take place to resolve that claim.

According to Judge Arrowood, the case came down to whether reasonable minds could disagree when asked if Officer Blackman acted with “malice.” North Carolina courts hold that someone acts with “malice” when he or she “wantonly does that which a man of reasonable intelligence would know to be contrary to his duty and which he intends to be prejudicial or injurious to another.” Judge Richard Dietz agreed with Judge Arrowood on the issue of law-enforcement accountability.

Judge John M. Tyson, on the other hand, disagreed. In his view, there was no question that North Carolina law protected Officer Blackman’s actions under the circumstances. In support of that opinion, Judge Tyson emphasized Mr. Bartley’s testimony that his actions would have generally been inappropriate had they been done during a traffic stop police officer. (It is important to remember, of course, that Mr. Bartley says he was unaware that Officer Blackman was a police officer.)

There’s a lot more to this case than the narrow issue the Court of Appeals decided, though.

While the Court of Appeals’ opinion itself might be controversial depending on your life experiences, it’s important to keep in mind that the issue decided by the Court is just a small drop in the ocean that is law-enforcement accountability.

Although the issue of whether “public official immunity” protects Officer Blackman’s conduct survived dismissal before Guilford County Superior Court Judge Eric C. Morgan (and the Court of Appeals), numerous other important issues didn’t. First and foremost, Judge Morgan dismissed all of Mr. Bartley’s claims against the City of High Point without a trial. And, perhaps more importantly, Judge Morgan also dismissed Mr. Bartley’s claims against Officer Blackman to the extent they challenged his conduct “in his official capacity” based on “sovereign immunity.”

This leaves Mr. Bartley with just the very narrow claims against Officer Blackman that weren’t dismissed based on “sovereign immunity.” While he surely looks at that as better than nothing, it’s worth wondering whether a “better than nothing” chance is the best our justice system can offer when someone questions the actions of those who are bound to protect and serve.

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