Does the doctrine of sovereign immunity in North Carolina give members of law enforcement a license for misconduct?

A Durham County case was dismissed by a Superior Court judge in January because qualified immunity bars legal actions against governmental entities—including law officers—absent a consent or waiver.

Donald Dean is an Army combat veteran who says he was targeted by Durham sheriff’s deputies in 2016 and falsely accused of being a drug kingpin.

Dean, who turned 40 last month, struggled for more than two years after sheriff’s deputies in unmarked cars pulled him out of his 2013 Dodge Charger and manhandled him so badly they aggravated injuries he had received in Iraq and Afghanistan.

After the trauma of the beating, false accusations, and wrongful imprisonment, Dean lost everything. He lost three security jobs that paid more than $35 an hour after the sheriff’s office did not return his handguns. His car was repossessed after he fell behind on payments. He fell behind on child support and had to go to jail. The fiancée he was planning to build a home with ended their relationship. He slept in his car with his belongings before he ended up on his mama’s couch.

“I felt like killing myself,” Dean told the INDY

On April 8, 2019, three years after deputies snatched Dean out of his car and accused him of selling drugs, attorneys Gwendolyn Hailey of Mebane and Florence Bowens of Durham filed a complaint seeking compensation and punitive damages of at least $250,000 on his behalf.  

The attorneys accused nearly a dozen deputies and supervising detective Casey Norwood of depriving Dean of his civil rights with an unlawful search of his car, seizure of his handguns, false imprisonment, fraud, and the intentional infliction of emotional distress.

But Dean’s day in court was short-lived. On January 13, 2020, Durham Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson dismissed the case. Hailey says the judge was restricted by the sheriff’s office attorneys’ claims of sovereign immunity, which shields law enforcement agencies from a lawsuit of any kind unless the state consents to be sued.

“That’s all you heard was ‘sovereign immunity, sovereign immunity,’” says Hailey, who also worries that the deputies’ body and dash-cam footage of the confrontation with Dean may be destroyed. 

The NAACP took an interest in the case in the summer of 2017, says Vivian Timlic, executive director of the Durham chapter. She remembers the sheriff’s attorney’s refrain: “It’s not true. It couldn’t have happened. The sheriff’s office has integrity.”

“Our heads just dropped,” Timlic says. “Mr. Dean was injured. We have medical records, and his car was torn apart.”

Dean was unable to afford an attorney, and Timlic says it was difficult to find one in Durham to take the case. Hailey and Bowens picked up the case contingent upon Dean receiving compensation.

These days, Dean is finally doing better. Though he lost in his bid to hold the deputies accountable, being awarded full disability and a retroactive lump sum in June of last year has provided some solace. He has a one-bedroom apartment in Southwest Durham. He’s converted the den into a bedroom for his 19-year-old daughter, who is taking virtual classes at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte. There’s pastel art on a recessed wall in the dining area. The splash of color accentuates the light gray sectional sofa and comfortable recliner in the living room. Track lighting in the kitchen gives the place a cool and calm ambiance. 

“Everything in here is fresh. I came here with nothing,” says Dean, a stocky, bald-pated guy wearing a red Polo T-shirt, blue cargo shorts, and flip-flops. 

According to the complaint, the sheriff’s deputies stopped Dean’s Dodge Charger on NC 98 in East Durham, pulled him out of the car with guns drawn, slammed him to the asphalt face down, and handcuffed him. One of the officers, who wore the hooded mask that is part of the vice squad’s tactical gear, pinned Dean to the ground with a knee on his neck, while a second deputy had a boot on his spine. 

Norwood arrived and told the deputies “good job” and “we got him now.” Norwood twice called Dean “a dumb motherfucker,” and said, “in order to get out of this, you’re going to have to give me something, motherfucker,” according to the complaint. 

When the deputies transported Dean to an interrogation room at the sheriff’s office on Dillard Street, they handcuffed him to a table “like a dog” and continued to question him about being a “drug dealer.” 

According to the complaint, one of the deputies pointed to a gold chain Dean was wearing and said, “I’ve been doing this for over twenty years, and you sure look like a drug dealer to me.” 

Dean was born in Oakland, California. He moved to Durham with his mother when he was seven. Early on, he made a decision that determined his life’s trajectory. 

“I wanted to do things the right way,” Dean says, to break “generational curses” of poverty and a fatherless household. “I was raised by a single mom, and my dad was part of the 1980s crack epidemic. He did time in prison. I had to learn how to become a man on my own and find a way to support my family.” 

Dean attended Durham Public Schools and graduated from Tarheel Challenge Academy, a military school in Salemburg. In 2000, he enlisted in the Navy. Following a four-year stint, he joined the U.S. Army Reserves through the “Blue to Green” program before going on active duty in 2005. He looked forward to a 20-year career in the military and planned to serve in all four branches. But then he was wounded in Iraq. 

“I was in a convoy, and the vehicle forty feet in front of me hit an IED,” he says. “The explosion ricocheted, which caused our vehicle to flip.” Part of the metal from the Humvee’s frame went into his kneecap. The hot metal was rubbery, and Dean’s fellow soldiers were able to pull the shrapnel out. 

“If not, I would have lost my lower leg,” he says. 

Dean’s military career ended on August 12, 2008, with an honorable discharge for medical reasons. He enrolled at the Aviation Institute of Maintenance in Virginia and then in an HVAC program at Everest College. During that time, he was offered work as a mechanic for Mantech International, a military contractor in Afghanistan. He worked in the warzone to help repair combat vehicles.

It was Ramadan in the summer of 2013 when a missile landed at the base where Dean worked. 

“I fell off the vehicle I was working on and split the side of my head open. That’s all I can remember,” he says. “I woke up with nine staples in my head.” 

Dean came home to a woman he had met while working in Afghanistan. They clicked as a couple and moved into a home together near Hillside High School in Durham. Dean landed three jobs as an armed security guard. Then came the encounter with the sheriff’s deputies that led to what he calls his “downfall.” 

On August 7, 2016, Dean had an appointment at the VA Hospital, where he received injections every six months for headaches and nerve damage. Dean says he had to find someone to ride with him because medical officials would not allow him to drive after taking the heavy dosages of pain medicine. The only person available was Jason Brown. Dean says that when he went to pick Brown up, he did not know his friend was wanted by police for failing to appear in court. 

Dean and Brown stopped for a red light at the intersection of NC 98 and Lynn Road. Dean says he traveled slowly through the light after it changed and noticed a sheriff’s patrol car pull behind him. The cruiser’s lights were flashing, but the siren was not activated. 

According to the complaint, Dean stepped on his brakes and turned on his signal to indicate he was moving into the far-right lane, out of the patrol car’s way. That’s when a white Crown Victoria sped up and struck Dean’s Dodge Charger to bring it to a halt. Nearly half a dozen deputies rushed to the Dodge with guns drawn. One of the deputies pulled Dean out of the car, slammed him on the ground, and handcuffed him. 

“I instantly knew what was going on,” Dean says. “They’re thinking my friend is a felon, and they are about to shoot us because they think he’s going to run.” 

Dean knew Brown had previous drug-related run-ins with law officers. According to a motion filed in November, deputies targeted Brown after he sold marijuana and cocaine to a confidential informant. Dean thinks the deputies looked at his car and the gold chain around his neck and fingered him as Brown’s supplier. 

The tension eased a bit after the deputies searched his car and found his military ID cards and the contractor ID from Afghanistan. They also found the two handguns Dean used for security and his concealed-carry permit. 

One element of the traffic stop was particularly painful for Dean. Once the white deputies realized he wasn’t a drug dealer, they backed off and told him they were just doing their job. Dean says supervising detective Casey Norwood, who is Black, acted as if he had hit the jackpot. 

“He told me I was the dumbest vet he knew to hang out with the dumbest drug dealer in town,” Dean says. 

While being questioned at the sheriff’s office, one of the deputies told Dean they had an arrest warrant for him if he didn’t say the guns found in his car belonged to Brown, according to the complaint. 

Norwood told Dean, “You’re not going no motherfucking where until you tell me what I want to know.” 

Counting on Dean to lay a false charge on Brown, “Norwood slid a piece of paper and pen” to Dean, according to the complaint. 

Dean told them that he couldn’t say weapons belonged to Brown and explained that he purchased the firearms, which were registered in his name, for his work as a security guard.

Norwood and the detective left the room and never came back. Other officers uncuffed Dean from the table, handed him back his license, and told him he was free to go. Dean was unable to retrieve his firearms from the sheriff’s office for nearly a year.

When Dean left the sheriff’s office that day, he went to the hospital for treatment of his injuries. The military vet’s encounter with the deputies happened more than four years ago, but for Dean—who always wanted to do things the right way—the pain endures.

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