Marion Humphrey Jr. has sued Steven Payton, an Arkansas State Police trooper, over his stop last August for an alleged improper lane change that led to his being detained and handcuffed while his rental vehicle was searched. Nothing was found.
Humphrey contends the stop was unconstitutional and that he was essentially stopped for “driving while Black.” The suit contains new allegations about incendiary comments made by the trooper who stopped Humphrey, including a question about his parentage. It says other offices can testify Payton said he hadn’t received consent to a search and could cast doubt on his justification for handcuffing Humphrey and holding him.
Humphrey had told of the stop previously and complained to state officials that he was stopped and issued a warning because he is a Black person. A third-year law student, his cause was taken up then by Conner Eldridge, a former U.S. attorney, for whom Humphrey had worked. Eldridge has been seeking data on all State Police stops, but this lawsuit focuses singularly on the stop by Payton and does not name the agency.
Humphrey, son of retired Judge Marion Humphrey of Little Rock, was moving from Fayetteville to Little Rock. He was stopped on Interstate 40 near Russellville. Payton told Humphrey he changed lanes “too quickly.” The State Police have defended the stop, in part by saying Humphrey wasn’t cited for a violation. Payton has justified his actions by saying Humphrey appeared nervous. If you were a Black man with a clean record who’d done nothing wrong but gotten stopped on an Arkansas interstate by a white state trooper a few days after the police killing of George Floyd, might you be nervous?
A release from Eldridge’s law firm:
Little Rock resident and University of Arkansas law student Marion Humphrey, Jr. filed a federal lawsuit today for violation of his constitutional rights due to the actions of Arkansas State Police Trooper Steven Payton in stopping Mr. Humphrey, searching his rented U-Haul and arresting him, leaving him handcuffed in the back of a police car for over an hour, without any valid or constitutional basis.
Trooper Payton, acting in uniform and on behalf of the Arkansas State Police, conducted this illegal, unconstitutional and unconscionable stop on August 20, 2020, on I-40 in Russellville, Arkansas. Humphrey’s attorneys, including former U.S. Attorney Conner Eldridge of Eldridge Brooks and former U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon and Robert Bennett of Minneapolis-based law firm Robins Kaplan, filed the lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. §1983 in federal court in Little Rock, in the Eastern District of Arkansas.
Humphrey stated, “Through this lawsuit, I seek to stand up for my constitutional right to be free from police targeting because of the color of my skin. I seek not only justice for myself, but also, by taking this stand and challenging the traumatizing conduct of the Arkansas State Police and Trooper Payton, I hope to show others that we will not stand by and tolerate racist police practices in our home state of Arkansas.”
Eldridge commented, “I am proud to represent my friend Marion Humphrey, Jr. in standing up for his constitutional and basic human rights to be free from racist and illegal treatment due to the color of his skin. It is inexcusable that the Arkansas State Police and Trooper Payton conducted themselves in this manner, stopping Marion because of his race and arresting him, leaving him handcuffed in the back of a police car for over an hour while they tossed around his possessions, finding nothing.
“Many in Arkansas can relate to students moving belongings from Fayetteville to Little Rock or elsewhere. All would be outraged if this had happened to them or their children. The truth is that African Americans in our statev continue to be subjected to disparate and illegal treatment based on their race. It is clear Trooper Payton and the Arkansas State Police’s behavior in this case was racist and unconstitutional.
“We must stand up for Marion and others in these situations so we can ensure that racism is confronted and justice prevails in Arkansas.”
While moving his possessions from Fayetteville to Little Rock in a rented U-Haul and driving that U- Haul with care, caution, attention and at or below the speed limit, Mr. Humphrey was stopped for “driving while black” and subjected to unconstitutional treatment by Arkansas State Police Trooper Payton. In initiating the stop, Trooper Payton reached speeds of 90 miles per hour or more. The pretextual reason given for the stop was, in Payton’s words, “you bout wrecked the truck back there,” however, the dash camera video from Trooper Payton’s police car showed that nothing remotely close to Payton’s assertion in his false statement occurred. Trooper Payton subsequently arrested Marion, handcuffing him and confining him in the back of the police car for over an hour.
An extensive search of the U-Haul involving four officers ensued. Police found nothing illegal because there was nothing illegal. The U-Haul contained furniture, dishes, books and other possessions belonging to Humphrey, as Humphrey had repeatedly stated to Payton at the beginning of the stop. Payton and the other officers rifled through these possessions, stepping on and damaging some of them. Almost two hours after the initial stop, Trooper Payton concluded the illegal stop, search, and arrest by saying to Humphrey “troopers get shot too.” During the course of the stop, Trooper Payton made numerous inappropriate comments and statements to Humphrey and the other officers, including questioning whether Humphrey was actually on the phone with his father, retired Circuit Judge Marion Humphrey, Sr., by saying “you always wonder if Daddy is actually Daddy.”
This is not the first federal lawsuit brought against Trooper Payton for abuse of his position and inappropriate, unconstitutional behavior. Trooper Payton was previously sued in 2013 for excessive force while serving in a previous job as a police officer in Dover, Arkansas. Despite that lawsuit, the Arkansas State Police hired Payton as a State Trooper.
The lawsuit adds allegations of questionable accounts by Payton, including that he reportedly said it was suspicious that Humphrey was driving with his hands at 10 and 2 o’clock on the steering wheel, which the State Police driver’s manual recommends. The lawsuit says he “contrived” an explanation for the stop four days afterward to cover his mistakes.
The narrative in the lawsuit is gripping, a vivid depiction of a cop bullying a Black motorist and making demeaning remarks to a young man terrified by his treatment. Payton will get his chance to respond, but a video will demonstrate some of what occurred. If other officers confirm he did not get consent to search the truck, things shouldn’t go well for Payton, particularly if he can still not explain by anything but Humphrey’s nervousness all that occurred.
The suit asks for damages, including punitive, for Payton’s violation of Humphrey’s right against unlawful search.
I’ve asked the State Police for comment. It is not a defendant, but the allegations about Payton’s conduct demand a response from the agency that puts him on the highway.
The agency response:
State police commanders have not seen a copy of the lawsuit and we will not be making public statements about the case while there is pending litigation.
Eldridge told me in response to a question:
“One nuance of 1983 cases challenging unconstitutional actions against the state is you have to sue the state actor in their individual capacity – you basically can’t sue the state in this circumstance. Suing the officer in their individual capacity acting as a trooper is treated as, in effect, a lawsuit against the state. The attorney generals office defends these cases. So we will get into broader ASP matters-like how they let this happen in this case and others – in discovery.”