Jury awards $3 to Pa. man who sued for 'violation of civil rights' during arrest

A federal jury ruled several state troopers violated the rights of a man arrested for driving too slowly on Interstate 84, but awarded him just $3 because it found their conduct did not harm him


By Morgan-Besecker
The Times-Tribune

SCRANTON, Pa. — A federal jury ruled several state troopers violated the rights of a man arrested for driving too slowly on Interstate 84, but awarded him just $3 because it found their conduct did not harm him.

Joseph Watley, of Thomaston, Connecticut, filed suit in 2016, alleging he suffered emotional distress and other damages after he was jailed in connection with a May 11, 2016, traffic stop on the interstate in Pike County.

According to court records, Cpl. Michael Felsman pulled Watley over near the Blooming Grove exit after he clocked him driving 48 mph in a 65 mph zone. Cpl. Daniel Nilon and Trooper James Sohns assisted at the scene and searched Watley’s vehicle, which was towed.

The normally routine encounter took an unusual turn when Watley refused to roll down his window or respond to any questions. Instead, he held up a sign that read, “I remain silent. No searches. I want my lawyer. Place ticket under wiper blade.”

Watley was charged with three traffic citations and taken into custody. He was lodged in Pike County Correctional Facility and released the next day.

The lawsuit, filed by Pittston attorney Cynthia Pollick,alleged Felsman was angry Watley refused to speak and retaliated against him by taking him to jail, as opposed to issuing a written citation and allowing him to go on his way. Watley was found not guilty of the citations.

Watley also alleged Nilon and Sohns illegally searched his vehicle during the initial traffic stop, and that Felsman used excessive force and violated his right to be free from illegal search and seizure when he transported a handcuffed Watley to his car after he was released from jail.

In a pretrial ruling, Senior U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo dismissed all claims against Felsman related to the initial traffic stop, but let stand claims against Nilon and Sohns related to the search. He also let stand Watley’s claims against Felsman relating to his actions in transporting Watley to retrieve his vehicle.

In court papers, attorneys for the state police maintained the search was legal and justified. They also argued Felsman did not violate Watley’s rights when gave him a “courtesy” ride to his vehicle because Watley consented and did not object to being handcuffed.

The trial before Caputo began last week. Jurors rendered their verdict Oct. 17.

The panel found Felsman did unlawfully seize Watley relating to the May 12, 2016, ride to his car and that he used excessive force. They awarded Watley nominal damages of $1 for each count because they found the conduct did not cause him actual harm or injury. Jurors rejected Watley’s claim that the excessive force amounted to assault and battery.

The jury also found Nilon wrongly searched Watley’s car, but cleared Sohns of any wrongdoing. It awarded him $1 for Nilon’s action, again finding the conduct did not harm Watley.

Contacted Monday, Watley said he views the verdict as a victory even though he was awarded just $3.

“We have to stand up and fight for our rights and protections or we lose them,” Watley said. “I’m hoping this experience will help others protect themselves.”

Pollick also said some good came out of the case.

“Although the jury did not award damages, the jury made sure that Corporal Nilon and Corporal Felsman were found liable for violating the constitutional rights of a citizen, thereby making sure we are safer,” Pollick said in an email.

The state attorney general’s office represented state police. In an email, Joe Grace, spokesman for the office, said: “We appreciate the jury’s service and are pleased that the plaintiff was awarded only $3 for ‘nominal’ damages.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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