just three days before, federal lawsuit says
Five Memphis police officers charged in the deadly police beating of Tyre Nichols last month are accused of assaulting another young Black man just three days prior, according to a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.
Monterrious Harris, 22, filed the lawsuit against the officers and the city of Memphis, alleging the officers were among several members of the now-disbanded SCORPION police unit who allegedly punched, stomped and dragged him across concrete during his arrest on January 4.
When asked for comment, Major Karen Rudolph of the Memphis Police Department said, “We are unable to comment on any ongoing litigation.” CNN has also reached out to the officers and the City of Memphis for comment.
The lawsuit, filed in US District Court, alleges Harris was unconstitutionally arrested and accuses the city of failing to prevent or address an alleged pattern of policing abuses within the SCORPION unit.
When the specialized policing unit was launched in 2021, it was championed by the city and police department as a tool to tackle some of Memphis’ most violent crimes. But it was quickly shut down after videos of Nichols’ violent and deadly arrest ignited nationwide protests and led to five SCORPION unit officers being charged with murder, assault and several other charges in connection with Nichols’ death. Two of the fired officers plan to plead not guilty, their attorneys said.
The five officers – Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith – were among the team of officers that arrested Harris at an apartment complex, according to a police affidavit and the lawsuit.
The account given by police in the affidavit – which does not mention officers physically struggling with Harris during the arrest – and the account given in the lawsuit strongly contradict one another. The lawsuit accuses the arresting officers of providing a “falsified” affidavit about the details of Harris’ arrest.
According to the lawsuit, Harris had arrived at an apartment complex to meet his cousin, who sat in the car with him briefly but got out to get a jacket. While the cousin was gone, the lawsuit says, the officers, who were wearing ski masks and didn’t immediately identify themselves, confronted Harris.
After his arrest, police alleged they found a handgun in the car and that Harris was in possession of Xanax and marijuana, the affidavit shows. The lawsuit says the handgun was placed in the car by Harris’ cousin – who the suit says is licensed to own the firearm – when he came to sit in the car, and did so without Harris’ knowledge.
“At no time did Mr. Harris even know that his cousin was armed or that there was a firearm in his vehicle,” the lawsuit says.
Harris was charged with being a convicted felon in possession of a handgun, criminal trespass, evading arrest, possession of a firearm during a dangerous felony, possession of a controlled substance, tampering with or fabricating evidence and possession of drug paraphernalia, according to the lawsuit and affidavit.
The lawsuit alleges the arrest violated Harris’ constitutional rights including the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure and due process of law. It is seeking $5 million in damages and punitive damages against the defendants.
Contradicting police and lawsuit accounts
The police affidavit said an officer asked Harris to roll down his car window and step out of the vehicle after he smelled the odor of what seemed to be marijuana coming from the car. The affidavit accuses Harris of trying to drive backward “at a high rate of speed” before exiting the car and running from police, allegedly throwing a clear bag with a substance “consistent with marijuana” into the grass.
The affidavit says Harris “was then detained by Detectives” but says nothing about a physical altercation or struggle to arrest Harris or any injuries to Harris.
The lawsuit, however, alleges Harris “was suddenly swarmed by a large group of assailants wearing black ski-masks, dressed in black clothing, brandishing guns, other weapons, hurling expletives and making threats to end his life if he did not exit his car. Unknown to Mr. Harris at the time – the black masked assailants were members of the Scorpion Unit.”
None of the officers identified themselves as police or told Harris why he was being asked to step out of the car, the lawsuit says.
“Mr. Harris – believing himself to be a victim of a car-jacking – panicked and attempted to reverse his vehicle, striking an object located behind his vehicle prior to exiting his vehicle with his hands raised,” the lawsuit says.
The officers then punched, stomped and dragged Harris on concrete before taking him into custody, the suit says.
Harris’ head was bleeding, his left eye was swollen shut and his legs were swollen and bruised when he arrived at the jail, the suit says. It adds that he was not given medical treatment until a nurse or intake specialist at the jail ordered that he be taken to a hospital.
Unit allowed to act as ‘vigilantes,’ lawsuit says
The lawsuit alleges the police department and the city of Memphis allowed the SCORPION unit to operate like a “gang of vigilantes” without adequate training or supervision.
It alleges that the city hired officers for the unit who didn’t have the experience or education typically required of such specialized units and subsequently failed to provide them with training to do the tasks required of them.
The lawsuit also details several accusations of misconduct against the unit, including that its officers were trained by the department to falsify affidavits that provide the factual basis for arrests.
“The Scorpion Unit was not a rogue unit or a unit comprised of a ‘few bad apples,’” the lawsuit says. “All of its actions were performed at the behest of the Memphis Police Department and Defendant City of Memphis.”
“These officers weren’t out here just acting rogue,” Harris’ attorney Robert Spence told CNN. “They’re wearing bodycams. I mean, they’re recording this with impunity. … They’re not afraid that anybody’s going to see it.”
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