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Delaware Today magazine: Tales From the Court, strange, bizarre cases from Delaware courtrooms

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Illustration by Pat KinsellaPrivate Eyes: They’re Watching You

It seems like only yesterday that getting pulled over with a duffel bag full of marijuana meant immediate jail time, but not any more. Times have changed.

On Feb. 24, 2010, Michael D. Holden of Newark was pulled over after he crossed the Delaware Memorial Bridge into Delaware with a bag of pot. The real issue with this case isn’t what he had, but how police knew he had it.

A few weeks before the arrest, the Drug Enforcement Administration received a tip that named Holden as a person of interest for drug trafficking, so it planted a tracking device on his Lexus. Three weeks of monitoring yielded nothing and the lead looked dead—that is, until the informant tipped off the agency about a potential deal going down in New Jersey. With the new information, the officers were able to use GPS surveillance to follow Holden to the drop house, where police say the contraband was put in the Lexus. Upon his return to Delaware, Holden received a warm welcome from the Delaware River and Bay Authority Police, who pulled him over, searched his car and found 10 pounds of marijuana.

Sounds like a textbook arrest, except for the fact that the police never obtained a warrant to place the tracking device. More surprising?
Current laws don’t require one. The police can’t enter your home without a warrant, but they can follow you around for weeks without paperwork if they deem it necessary.

“The law has not kept up with technology,” says Kathleen MacRae, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware. “There are new pieces of technology that the police are using that they don’t need a warrant to use. They say it’s not illegal search and seizure.”

Police argue that using these sorts of devices is similar to using long-range surveillance techniques that don’t require warrants, like binoculars or telescopes. But the ACLU counters, stating the individual privacy rights found in the Constitution trump the pounds of weed found in a car.

On Dec. 28, 2010, Delaware Superior Court Judge Jan Jurden sided with the ACLU in favor of privacy rights, though this case could reach the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s one of many similar cases throughout the country.

In 2008 a judge in Chester County, Pa., threw out evidence in a case against a serial burglar that was obtained through the warrantless placement of a GPS device. In another case in 2010, a federal appeals court discarded similar evidence in a drug case against a Washington, D.C., nightclub owner.

The ACLU isn’t trying to release criminals into society. It is trying to improve the personal rights and freedoms of all citizens, says MacRae.

“The Constitution exists to control government power,” she says, “so this really is about restricting the power of government to interfere.”

 

case 2: Silent Movie

 

Illustration by Pat KinsellaSilent Movie

Go back to Oct. 12, 2007, when gas was $2.77 a gallon, a $20 bill bought two movie tickets and a box of candy. Now picture a white theater manager who makes a room full of African-American moviegoers feel like second-class citizens.

It was opening night of “Why Did I Get Married?” starring Janet Jackson and Jill Scott. Hundreds gathered at Carmike Cinemas in Dover, eager to see Tyler Perry’s newest flick. At the time, Perry’s movies drew a predominantly middle-aged African-American audience, and this one was no exception. Carmike dedicated three of its 14 screens to airing the movie, with the largest room at the cinema—a 130-seat arena—selling out well before screening time.

The capacity crowd was watching patiently the previews that informed them about movie etiquette and snack bar options, when manager David Stewart entered the largest theater. He made his way to the front and reminded the audience members to turn off their phones, refrain from talking during the movie, and to not get up and walk around after the movie commenced. Then he left.

A murmur built slowly until the noise in the theater was almost deafening, recalls William McCulley, who attended the showing with his wife, Sonji.

“Everyone looked around and was shocked,” he recalls. “This never happens at any other movie. Why would he need to tell us to be quiet? I had been going to movies in the area for years and I had never seen anything like it. I never felt like that before.”

News quickly reached Stewart about how his speech was taken, and he returned to the theater to apologize. He even stood outside the exit of the theater after the movie finished, shaking everyone’s hands and wishing them a good night. That didn’t change much. The crowd was still upset. A white man asked a group of middle-aged African-Americans to behave themselves. The damage was done.

A few minutes after Stewart left the theater, Juana Fuentes-Bowles, then-director of the Delaware Human Relations Division, who was in the audience, asked people to provide their information if they felt offended and she would contact them. McCulley, his wife, and 21 others signed on and filed a complaint with the State Human Relations Committee, arguing that the incident violated civil rights laws and created a situation that was discriminatory based on race.

The State Human Relations Committee agreed with the opinion and awarded damages of $1,500 per person to those who filed the complaint, as well as about $20,000 in other fees to be paid by the theater chain.

In an appeal, Stewart and Carmike argued that addresses like the one given had been made the week before to a predominantly white audience gathered to view “Halloween,” but there were no other instances on record when this occurred. At the time, there was no written policy dictating whether managers would address audiences, or whether they would allow the pre-movie trailers do the work for them.

On July 6, 2010, the Superior Court overturned the committee’s ruling, stating that the verbal reminder might have been unneeded, but that the theater and Stewart were not violating civil rights. The courts decided that the speech was directed at the entire theater-going crowd, regardless of skin color. That ruling was upheld Feb. 17, 2011, in the Delaware Supreme Court.

The final decision was a painful blow to William McCulley, but not an unexpected one. The ruling changed. His feelings haven’t.

“It’s just kind of crazy. That stuff just doesn’t happen,” he says, adding that was the only movie he has attended that featured a personal courtesy reminder.

“I’m sure [Stewart] felt uncomfortable addressing us—he seemed it,” says McCulley. “But you could tell he knew he was wrong. Why else would he be waiting outside the doors and shaking everyone’s hands?”

Stewart has since moved back to the Olean Carmike Theater, about an hour south of Buffalo, N.Y. He’s still employed by the company and won’t comment further. 

 

case 3: Funeral Fit for a King

 

Funeral Fit for a King

There is nothing funny about death, especially the death of a loved one. The immediate grief is exacerbated by the financial stress of arranging a service that does justice to the departed’s legacy.

When Sussex resident Ronald Harmon died from an on-the-job industrial accident, there was no question that his employer, Delaware Electric Cooperative, should cover some of the funeral expenses. The two parties just couldn’t agree on the amount.

The national average for a funeral is about $7,500, which can change depending on geography, religious needs or social status. But what happens in that gray area between social beacon and social pariah?

Harmon shared visions of his funeral with relatives before the accident. While his wishes might have been grand, he thought he’d earned them. He was a military veteran, active in the community, and served as an associate pastor at his church. He was a big fish in a small pond, so this service was going to be a whopper.

How big? It featured a six-disc DVD set commemorating his life, thousands of dollars in flowers highlighted by a $1,500 arrangement atop the casket, a limousine caravan between Seaford and Dover for his family, and the centerpiece—a stainless-steel engraved casket with a specially designed fiberglass vault to house it.

Grand total: $25,000.

Delaware Electric Co-op offered $3,500, the minimum for workplace death in Delaware.

 With a disparity of more than $20,000, Harmon’s estate secured attorney Christopher Amalfitano of Ramunno & Ramunno, and appealed to the Delaware Industrial Accident Board for increased compensation.

It’s not unheard of for the board to award sizeable claims, but the price difference in this situation was larger than average, says Cassandra Roberts, an attorney with Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor in Wilmington, who sits on the National Workers’ Compensation Advisory Board.

“It was a workplace accident, and it’s not unheard for employers to offer tens of thousands of dollars,” she says. “Their argument was that since the person held an important position in the community, they were entitled to a grander funeral.”

It was obvious to the board that the employer should cover an increased share of the service, but the estate was unsuccessful in proving that the cost was, in the words of the court, “reasonable.” Last November, the board awarded an additional $11,500 to the family, raising the total compensation to $15,000. Neither side left completely pleased, but the ruling helped the family cover some costs.

With $10,000 in costs uncovered, it’s for the best that the family chose the components it did—not one of the more elaborate ones. Says Roberts: “The other casket would have been trimmed in copper and cost much more.”

 

case 4: Trouble in the Ladies’ Room

 

Trouble in the Ladies’ Room

When a state employee regained consciousness on the tile of a bathroom floor, she knew something was horribly wrong.

The last thing she remembered was stumbling toward the sink in hope of splashing water on her face to sate her fever, sweating and dizziness. Almost 90 minutes after entering the bathroom, the Appoquinimink School District custodian had to piece together what she could recall so she could establish the events of her July morning.

The emergency room diagnosis: heat exhaustion brought on by a hot and stuffy restroom. Smith filed a workers’ compensation suit against her employer, the state of Delaware.

Smith’s case looked strong on paper, but Wilmington-based neurologist Alan Fink shared a different diagnosis when the panel convened: defecation syncope.

 It was an unfortunate situation for the employee, but the unusual evaluation of the case was enough to flush her argument down the toilet.

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