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Virginia Supreme Court Blocks Search Over Speeding
Virginia Supreme Court finds it unlawful for a police officer to search a purse over an allegation of speeding.

Petersburg police car
Police officers have no business searching a woman's purse over an allegation of speeding, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled last week. The justices came to that conclusion after considering the case of Monica Cromartie, who sued Petersburg police officer Brian Billings over her treatment during a February 12, 2015, traffic stop. At four foot nine and one hundred pounds, with knee inju‏ries, Cromartie did not pose much of a threat to the officer who had stopped her. As he approached, however, Officer Billings had trouble getting Cromartie's attention.

"I need you to roll down your window," he said.

Cromartie lowered the cell phone on which she was having a conversation to say, "Hey, officer, leave me alone." That infuriated Officer Billings, who opened the door, ripped Cromartie out of the seat and threw her face down on the pavement. A total of nineteen seconds had elapsed between the initial knock on the window and Cromartie's slamming into the ground. Cromartie was never asked to open her door or step out of the vehicle.

The officer slammed his knee into Cromartie's back to handcuff her and place her in leg shackles. She was made to sit on the curb while Officer Billings and a backup officer searched the car. Officer Billings grabbed the woman's purse and began searching through it. He found lingerie, a vaping device and a container that he claimed contained "marijuana residue." She was booked for marijuana possession and obstruction of justice, charges that were ultimately thrown out. Cromartie fought back by suing the Officer Billings for malicious prosecution, false imprisonment and assault.

A jury reviewed the case at trial and awarded Cromartie $23,499 in damages. Cromartie was not finished. The circuit court judge had thrown out separate charges against Officer Billings for unlawful search, excessive force and false arrest which Cromartie took up with the high court. The justices restored those charges because the search had nothing to do with the alleged speeding that prompted the traffic stop.

"Billings is not protected by sovereign immunity, however, because his actions exceeded simple negligence," Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons wrote for the court. "Neither her vehicle nor her purse could have contained evidence of speeding. Additionally, neither her vehicle nor her purse could have contained evidence related to obstruction of justice, the offense for which Billings obtained an arrest warrant from a magistrate after the encounter."

The justices also believed that no reasonable officer would have believed it acceptable to toss someone on the pavement "mere seconds" after being asked to roll down the window.

"Cromartie did not threaten Billings, she did not act with an intention to obstruct Billings, and she did not employ direct action to resist arrest," Justice Lemons wrote. "Cromartie's brief delay in responding to Billings' instruction did not constitute obstruction of justice."

The justices ordered a new trial solely to assess the amount of additional compensation that Cromartie should receive. A copy of the ruling is available in a 100k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File Cromartie v. Billings (Virginia Supreme Court, 1/16/2020)

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