Lawsuit says Black woman was grabbed by hair, pulled out of SUV during a traffic stop in North Carolina

ByArtemis Moshtaghian, Melissa Alonso and Amanda Jackson, CNNWire
Saturday, May 1, 2021
Lawsuit: Black woman was grabbed by hair during NC traffic stop
Within seconds of arriving at her driver's side door, officers grabbed the by her arm and hair and pulled her from her vehicle to the ground.

A Black woman was allegedly grabbed by the hair and pulled out of her SUV by North Carolina police during a traffic stop in 2019 after she was driving 10 miles per hour over the speed limit and failed to stop for law enforcement, according to a civil lawsuit filed last week.

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Four law enforcement officers are named in the federal lawsuit filed in US District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina. The lawsuit seeks monetary damages for the alleged use of excessive force and unlawful search of the plaintiff's purse and vehicle.

Stephanie Bottom was driving on May 30, 2019, along Interstate 85 from Georgia to North Carolina to attend her great aunt's funeral, her attorney Scott Holmes told CNN on Tuesday. The then-66-year-old librarian from Fulton County, Georgia, was listening to music and didn't initially see the flashing blue lights coming from the police vehicle behind her, Holmes said.

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According to the lawsuit, Bottom did not believe she was driving fast and did not think the police were trying to stop her.

Officers with the Rowan County Sheriff's Office and the Salisbury Police Department were attempting to conduct a traffic stop on Bottom, alleging she was driving 80 mph in a 70-mph zone, according to the suit.

"Once it became clear they wanted her to pull over she was afraid and was looking for a safe place to pull over," Holmes told CNN in an email.

Officers had their sirens on for at least 10 minutes, according to body camera footage that is cited in the lawsuit and was reviewed by CNN. It's unclear how close police were to Bottom's vehicle before she pulled over, as the footage only shows the inside of the police vehicle and the sky.

Officers had guns drawn

When Bottom didn't immediately pull over, one of the officers making the traffic stop identified in the lawsuit as Salisbury Police Officer Devin Barkalow made statements recorded by his body camera that Bottom was a "f**king retard" and a "douche bag," according to the body camera footage.

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Another officer involved in the traffic stop, only identified as Officer Smith, pulled ahead of Bottom and deployed spike strips that immediately immobilized her vehicle, the lawsuit says.

As Rowan County Sheriff's Deputy Mark Benfield and Barkalow approached her vehicle they had their guns drawn and pointed at her, according to the lawsuit. She was "terrified," according to the lawsuit, as officers shouted at her to exit the vehicle.

Within seconds of arriving at her driver's side door, the officers grabbed Bottom by her arm and hair and pulled her from her vehicle to the ground, according to body camera footage. The lawsuit names Benfield and Barkalow as the two officers who did this.

In the footage, Bottom is seen screaming as Benfield, Barkalow, and Salisbury Police Officer Adam Bouk force her to lay face down on the ground, according to the lawsuit.

Officers allegedly refused medical treatment

The officers pulled Bottom's arms behind her back while she shrieked in pain as sirens blared in the background, according to the footage. The force applied by the officers caused Bottom's "shoulder to 'pop,' tearing her rotator cuff and causing severe injury," according to the lawsuit.

The fourth officer named in the lawsuit is Rowan County Sheriff Kevin Auten. The suit alleges that in his official capacity he "approved and condoned the unlawful behavior."

CNN has reached out to Rowan County Sheriff's Department for comment but has not yet heard back.

In a statement to the media, the Salisbury Police Department said it was unable to comment on pending litigation but that it strives "for positive interactions with our residents and visitors, including in cases where (police) may suspect criminal activity."

Bottom claims the officers refused to get her medical treatment even as she told them she was in pain, according to the lawsuit. As she was handcuffed on the side of the road, the officers searched her vehicle and purse without her consent, a warrant, or probable cause which violated Bottom's Fourth Amendment rights, the lawsuit says.

After the search, officers told Bottom to stand, but she said she couldn't due to the pain in her shoulder, according to the suit. Officers Barkalow and Bouk picked up by her arms, inflicting additional pain to her shoulder, forced her to stand and put her in the back of a patrol car, according to the lawsuit.

During this time, Bouk is heard on the body camera footage saying, "That's good police work baby" to other officers, according to the suit. It also claims that the officers congratulated one other for their work and an officer identified in the lawsuit as Barkalow is heard bragging about grabbing a "handful of dreads," saying "at that point she earned it."

Eventually, Bottom received medical attention at the scene and was taken to the hospital, the lawsuit says. She later had surgery for the injury, but it did not fully repair the shoulder, according to the lawsuit, and now there is permanent damage.

Officers issued Bottom a summons, charging her with "speeding... failure to heed blue lights, and resisting, delaying, and obstructing an officer for allegedly refusing to get out of her vehicle and pulling away from the officer," according to the lawsuit.

She appeared in court for the traffic violations, pleaded responsible to failure to heed blue lights, and the other charges against her were dismissed, according to the lawsuit.