The city of Columbia announced Friday that it had settled a wrongful-arrest lawsuit involving a high-profile Five Points case and will pay the plaintiff $300,000.
The out-of-court settlement followed a federal judge’s ruling March 11 that a city ordinance that makes it illegal to interfere with a police officer carrying out an arrest is unconstitutionally vague.
On the surface, it was a late night arrest outside a bar, much like thousands Columbia police have made over the years in the popular Five Points nightclub and restaurant district.
But the Oct. 17, 2009, arrest of Jonathan McCoy for interfering with three police officers led to a lawsuit. McCoy, a Myrtle Beach attorney in town for a wedding, argued his civil rights were violated, that he was exercising his constitutional right to question law enforcement officers in public. The trial was to begin Monday in federal court.
McCoy’s version of events is that he was only trying to ask police why they were arresting his friend and that police didn’t like his questions, so they arrested him, too. Police said McCoy’s actions and closeness to the officers was such that they constituted interference.
The arrest – and the subsequent release of sidewalk videotapes of what happened to McCoy and his friend – drew FBI and Justice Department attention to police officers’ behavior in Five Points. But no action was taken.
The city’s news release Friday announcing the settlement said it brings the case to a close and reduces the possibility of the city being socked with an even larger jury award and the cost of further appeals.
Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott said he thinks the settlement underscores the city’s support for its public safety officers. The city made the best move following the federal ruling, he said.
“The city took the suit very seriously and wanted to make sure its officers were protected,” he said.
Neither McCoy nor his attorney in the case could be reached Friday for comment.
While the city works to revise the ordinance that was declared unconstitutional, Scott said officers will still move to detain anyone who tries to interfere with officers making an arrest. “We want to make sure no one is harmed, not the officer who could be distracted by interference, not the person being arrested, not the person interfering.”
Last week, in a pre-trial hearing in McCoy’s case, Judge Joe Anderson ruled that the city’s ordinance making it against the law to interfere with a police officer was overly broad and unconstitutional. Laws about interfering with police need to be more specific, Anderson ruled, citing U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
The jury on Monday would have been asked to consider whether police went too far in arresting McCoy, or whether they acted properly given the totality of the circumstances in the case.
Jurors also were expected to view the videotapes of McCoy’s arrest shot from some of the numerous sidewalk security surveillance cameras in Five Points.
With the exception of a few seconds, the tapes show what transpired during McCoy’s arrest, but there is no audio.
After the officers had pushed his friend to the ground and handcuffed him, McCoy approaches and speaks, the video shows. One officer pushes him away, on the shoulder, then another spins him around and tries to send him along. Then one officer walks quickly toward McCoy, forcing McCoy to walk backward while still looking at the officer, before he is arrested.