Amarillo AFEDERAL district judge’s ruling in a Panhandle civil rights case effectively ended what one Parmer County resident called “open season on our citizens.” On March 12, U.S. District Judge Mary Lou Robinson upheld a jury’s award, giving compensatory and punitive damages to Carrie Melear and Willie Stewart, both of Bovina a town of 1,499 in the middle of the onion fields that stretch along the western edge of the Texas Panhandle. Judge Robinson awarded the two plaintiffs $127,500 after hearing testimony regarding frightening illegal and warrantless searches conducted by a Parmer County justice of the peace and three law officers. According to the testimony of Carrie Melear, owner of the Melear apartments in Bovina, and Willie Stewart, a resident of the apartments, Justice of the Peace Wayne Spears, then-Parmer County sheriff’s deputy Ron Avirett, thenBovina police chief Rodney Bachman, and then-Bovina police officer Mel Clark kicked in the doors of the apartment complex on the night of May 10, 1984, and searched their apartments without warrants, while brandishing guns and acting wildly. Spears, Bachman, and Avirett had been drinking at Spears’s Bovina home prior to receiving a call about 10 p.m. regarding two armed men allegedly trying to kill a Bovina man. Even though they had been drinking and were out of uniform, they joined Clark and went hunting for the suspects. Their hunt led to the Melear apartments, where they kicked in at least two doors, which the city later replaced. Betty Wheeler, attorney for the plaintiffs, said the right to be free from unreasonable searches is the most precious right of Americans and told the four men and eight women of the jury that anyone who deprives another of that right should pay $50,000. The jury apparently agreed, awarding Melear and Stewart $50,000 each in punitive damages to be paid equally by the four Josh Rappaport is a reporter for the Amarillo Globe-News. defendants. Judge Robinson upheld this award, as well as $20,000 in compensatory damages to Melear and $7,500 in compensatory damages to Stewart. Robinson did grant defense motions to dismiss the city of Bovina and Parmer County from the litigation after attorneys presented dismissal motions. Wheeler, who tried to show the actions of the four officials resulted from policies of the city and county, said the plaintiffs were “extremely disappointed” with the dismissals, adding she may appeal the decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. CARRIE MELEAR, a slight, elderly woman with straight white hair and glasses, said after the verdict was returned that she hoped it would send a strong message: “Maybe they’ll think before they do this to somebody else. ,Maybe this will bring it to their attention to be more careful when they break in on ‘people.” Asked whether she felt vindicated, she said, “I am glad that the jury saw our side of it, that we had been put upon by these hoodlums.” Melear had testified on the trial’s fourth day that she didn’t have any choice but to let the defendants search her apartment because they had held guns to her head. “Do you feel like you gave consent [to the search]?” Wheeler asked her. “Mr. Avirett was walking behind me with a gun at the back of my head. So I didn’t have any choice,” Melear testified. After the verdict, three police chiefs from the Panhandle stated that civil rights litigation against lawmen can upgrade the quality of law enforcement. “I’d say it’s good,” said Perryton Police Chief Joe Hannon. “Yes, I’d have to be a fool not to. It wakes you up, puts you in the 20th Century.” Litigation against police departments has “sparked professionalism,” said Pampa Police Chief J.J. Ryzman, a 20-year veteran of police work. Tulia Police Chief Tom Rolen said the recent increase in police misconduct suits has “had a positive effect because it’s made us fully aware of where our weaknesses in training and personnel are.” Hannon said the only thing that bothered him about the trial’s outcome is that the city and county were dismissed from the case: “You know, if you have to blame somebody, you have to blame everybody involved.” Two other plaintiffs, Bovina citizens Craig Pearson and Eusebio Salazar, alleged they were detained for a long time after the defendants mistakenly took them for suspects. Pearson and Salazar testified they feared for their lives during this period. The jury decided Pearson and Salazar should recover compensatory damages of $10,000 and $100, respectively, and said Pearson should also recover punitive damages of $50,000. But the jury nullified these awards when it also found the defendants had probable cause to arrest both men. Wheeler said she may also file motions to attempt to permit Pearson to collect his $60,000. Pearson, 18, was bitter about the verdict: “I feel that I’ve been stripped of all my rights because I’m the only one who’s had my life threatened, and I’m the only one walking out with nothing.” He said he deserved some compensation. “If Bachman had pulled that trigger when he poked around my head with that gun, what amount of money could he put on my grave to bring my life back?” IN A RELATED event, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct on February 19 publicly reprimanded Justice of the Peace Spears for his actions on the night of May 10, 1984. After conducting an independent investigation, the commission determined that Spears accompanied the lawmen after having “imbibed alcoholic beverages.” “Confusing or merging of the traditionally distinct roles of law enforcement [executive branch] and judgment [judicial branch] lead inevitably to evils which the Constitutional principle of separation of powers attempts to avoid,” the reprimand states. Spears, who also serves as Bovina city administrator and municipal judge, is still in power, but Bovina sources say that the city commission is looking into ways to oust him. The commission held an executive session after its regularly scheduled March 10 meeting that sources said was to discuss ways of fir ing Spears. Contacted by the Observer, Aycock and City Commissioner Dudley Hughes denied any movement afoot to fire Spears. Police ‘Hoodlums’ Panhandle Residents Win Against Illegal Searches By Josh Rappaport 18 APRIL 18, 1986
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