St. Lucie County

(40) JAMES P. CROCKER vs. DEPUTY SHERIFF STEVEN ERIC BEATTY, in His Individual Capacity, Former Sheriff ROBERT L. CROWDER, in His Individual Capacity, and SHERIFF WILLIAM D. SNYDER, in His Official Capacity (United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida, Fort Pierce Division)

County/Docket #/Judge: St. Lucie / 2:16-cv-14162 / Robin L. Rosenberg

Plaintiff(s) Attorney(s): Guy Bennett Rubin of Rubin & Rubin, Stuart, FL

Defendant(s) Attorney(s): Bruce R. Bogan and Melissa J. Sydow of Hilyard, Bogan, et al., Orlando, FL

Age/Sex/Occupation Of Plaintiff: n/a / M / Business Owner

Cause Of Injury: Civil Rights/Search and Seizure/Seizure of Cell Phone of Bystander at Automobile Accident Scene. In an amended complaint filed on Sept. 6, 2016, plaintiff James P. Crocker filed an action under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 against defendant Deputy Sheriff Steven Eric Beatty, in his individual capacity, defendant former Sheriff Robert L. Crowder, in his individual capacity, and defendant Sheriff William D. Snyder, in his official capacity. Plaintiff alleged that on May 20, 2012, he was driving on I-95 in Martin County, Florida, when he noticed that a sports utility vehicle (SUV) had lost control, flipped over several times, and come to rest in the grass median. He parked his car and, along with 15 to 20 other people, tried to aid the persons trapped in the SUV. When emergency personnel arrived, plaintiff and others gave way to them and began to take photographs of the scene with their cell phones. At that point, plaintiff claimed, Beatty walked toward the observers, snatched plaintiff’s phone, and asked plaintiff what he was doing there. After plaintiff explained the circumstances, he said, Beatty ordered him to leave. Plaintiff agreed but said that he would need his phone back. According to plaintiff, Beatty refused, telling him that the photographs he had taken were state evidence. When plaintiff protested, Beatty handcuffed him and told him that he was under arrest for resisting an officer without violence.

While Beatty escorted him to a patrol car, plaintiff told Beatty that he had known the county sheriff for 25 years and that plaintiff’s business employed over 100 people in Martin County. At this point, plaintiff alleged, Beatty tightened the handcuffs and dug his hand into plaintiff’s shoulder. He then put plaintiff in the patrol car, the air conditioning of which had been running, and turned off the air conditioning, forcing plaintiff to sit in the closed car without air conditioning with temperatures in the 80’s. Plaintiff began to sweat profusely and to have difficulty breathing. When Beatty returned about a half hour later, plaintiff begged him for relief, but Beatty told him it was not meant to be comfortable. Finally, plaintiff alleged, a highway trooper asked him for his driver’s license and then turned on the air conditioning. Eventually, plaintiff stated, he was taken to jail and spent five hours there before being allowed to make bond. Before he was released, plaintiff stated, the trooper who had turned on the air conditioning apologized and returned his cell phone to him. The Assistant State Attorney later dropped all charges against plaintiff.

Plaintiff brought claims of deprivation of civil rights against all defendants, as well as a state-law false arrest claim against Beatty, but later voluntarily dismissed his claims against Crowder. On July 28, 2014, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of Snyder. It granted partial summary judgment in favor of Beatty, so that only plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment claim against Beatty arising out of the seizure of his phone went to trial.

Nature Of Injury: Civil rights violations.

Expert Witnesses: n/a

Verdict: $1,000 for Plaintiff on Oct. 3, 2018.

Judgment: $1,000 for Plaintiff on Oct. 11, 2018.

Editor’s Note: In its verdict, the jury found that Beatty did not hold an objectively reasonable belief that the photographs and videos on plaintiff’s phone were evidence of a crime and that the destruction of this evidence was imminent. It declined to award punitive damages. The court reserved jurisdiction to determine entitlement to costs and attorney’s fees.

In an article by dated Oct. 5, 2018, plaintiff, who owned Hog Technologies, stated that the damages award was “more symbolic than important” and that he had spent $350,000 in legal fees and costs.

Beatty appealed from the denial of his motion for summary judgment as to plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment claim. Plaintiff filed a motion for reconsideration with regard to the order granting summary judgment to Snyder.