Crime & Courts

Jury awards ‘beloved’ USC prof $200,075 for being jailed on baseless DUI charge

After listening to a tale of how a Columbia police officer with little evidence jailed a popular University of South Carolina-Lancaster professor for DUI, a Richland County jury awarded the professor $200,075.

It took just 41 minutes for the jury to settle on a verdict for false arrest after a three-day trial in state court last month, said Columbia lawyer Paul Reeves, who represented Darris Hassell.

Hassell’s case involved a night police traffic stop in downtown Columbia in February 2014, one of hundreds of such city police stops each year.

Unlike most DUI arrests, the lack of evidence in Hassell’s case was a potpourri of bungles – a missing urine test, a missing police dashcam video, as well as a breath test that showed Hassell’s blood alcohol content was 0.0, meaning none at all, Reeves said.

Nonetheless, the officer decided to charge Hassell with DUI and had him transported to the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center, where he spent the next 16 hours, the lawsuit in the case charged.

Hassell, 47, grew up in Columbia, graduated from Keenan High School, then Wofford College in 1991. He’s a natural musician who plays piano by ear and for 20 years has led hymns and the choir at Brown Chapel AME Church near Columbia.

Hassell lives in Columbia and commutes to Lancaster, where he has taught Spanish at the University of South Carolina-Lancaster for 20 years and coaches the women’s volleyball team.

“He is a beloved professor on our campus,” said Ron Cox, dean for academic and student affairs, who has been at USC-Lancaster for 15 years. “He’s a very popular and personable professor – his No. 1 goal is the success of the students.”

The city declined to comment.

The arresting officer is no longer with the city, according to court documents, and was not identified in court records viewed by The State newspaper.

Trial Judge Casey Manning is to hold a hearing Friday morning on a motion for a new trial in the case by city of Columbia attorney Natalie Ham.

“The amount of the verdict was clearly an attempt to punish the city for the former employee’s actions,” Ham wrote in her motion to Manning.

Police chief Skip Holbrook, who was hired as chief one month after Hassell’s arrest, has been credited with upgrading the force’s professionalism. He said Thursday that because of the pending legal hearing, he could not comment.

‘Kept his cool’

Hassell is African-American; the arresting officer was white. The jury that heard the case was made up of eight white members and four African-Americans.

“I don’t think this was a racial issue – it was an issue of an officer who was not trained to do his job,” Hassell told The State in an interview this week.

Throughout the arrest, he recalled news accounts of African-Americans being shot to death in police custody.

“At no time did I get belligerent or angry to try to fight back or run, because I knew that things were kind of touchy-feely with police in one-on-one situations,” he said. “So I kept my cool. I’m not going against anything that he’s saying, because it’s just me and him. And that’s a bad spot to be in.”

The “bad spot” started innocently enough.

On the night of Feb. 19, 2014, he was using the computers at USC’s main campus, at Thomas Cooper Library, to check students’ work. Feeling hungry, he drove to the McDonald’s at Elmwood Avenue and Assembly Street. On the way home, at Taylor and Sumter streets, he noticed flashing blue lights behind him and pulled over and stopped.

The officer told Hassell he stopped him for making an improper turn and asked for ID. Hassell gave it to him.

Then the officer ordered Hassell out of the car, told him he smelled alcohol on Hassell’s breath and was going to charge him with driving under the influence. Hassell told the officer he had not been drinking and, in fact, never drank.

At that, the officer told Hassell to submit to field sobriety tests in front of the police car. The officer kept referring to a small instruction book on how to give the tests.

“The arresting officer was completely unfamiliar with the procedures ... and stumbled through the instructions,” the lawsuit said.

Hassell said the officer told him he had flunked the tests, Hassell told The State.

The officer then told Hassell he had one more test. But it was a “ruse” to have Hassell place his arms out so he could be handcuffed.

The officer took Hassell to police headquarters, where Hassell blew a 0.0 on a breath alcohol analyzing machine.

The arresting officer began insisting that Hassell had taken drugs. Then the officer took Hassell to Palmetto Health Richland, where he walked him through the emergency room in handcuffs, in front of the medical staff and patients.

The officer didn’t know how to take the urine sample and had to call a supervisor.

Then the officer had Hassell transported to the Alvin S. Glenn jail.

‘Could have been anybody’

Once out of jail, Hassell asked for a jury trial on his DUI charge. The city dropped the charge.

Hassell felt better. But he still felt the city had put him through a needless ordeal, putting him in jail, causing him to miss a day of work and embarrassing him before friends, family and co-workers.

“No one bothered to say they were sorry,” he said.

Reeves eventually filed suit, alleging false arrest, malicious prosecution and negligent supervision. But he said he didn’t sue the city for money. He said he believed the city needed to be sent a message and citizens given a warning.

“This officer was obviously untrained and out on the streets alone,” Hassell said. “What happened to me could have been anybody. What happens to the guy who can’t speak up for himself? What happens to the guy who doesn’t know he will eventually be vindicated?”

“Now that the trial’s over, there’s a sense of relief. But it never leaves me,” Hassell said. “Everything I tried to reason with the officer about, he just would not listen.”

And the $75 in the $200,075 verdict? Hassell can only speculate that the jury gave him that because that’s how much he had to pay to get back his impounded car.

“I love the city of Columbia, but this makes the city look bad,” Hassell said.

Still, he said, his faith in the system is justified. “Here in 2017, things have finally been set right.”

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