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COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP) — A federal judge has refused to dismiss a lawsuit that accuses two white U.S. Park Police officers of unlawfully detaining a black Secret Service agent who was waiting to accompany a Cabinet secretary's motorcade.
U.S. District Judge Paul Grimm in Maryland ruled Monday that a jury can decide if Gerald Ferreyra and Brian Phillips violated Nathaniel Hicks' constitutional right to be free from an unreasonable seizure.
Hicks' lawsuit says it appears the officers singled him out because of his race. Hicks says he did nothing during the July 2015 roadside encounter to justify being detained after the officers confirmed he was an on-duty Secret Service agent. A Park Police supervisor told Hicks he was free to go between 40 to 60 minutes after Ferreyra first detained him, according to the judge's ruling.
Ferreyra pointed his weapon at Hicks as he approached the agent's parked vehicle and saw a gun on the front seat, the lawsuit says. Hicks claims Ferreyra and Phillips both yelled at him, talked to him in a degrading manner, and wouldn't let him leave even after he showed them his Secret Service credentials.
"As he sat waiting for the motorcade to approach, fulfilling his official duties as a federal law enforcement agent, he was doing, and had done, nothing remotely criminal in nature," the suit says.
The officers' attorneys claim Hicks is merely seeking "vindication of a bruised ego resulting from quarreling among interagency law enforcement officers."
"This dispute, to the extent one exists, is a matter best left to internal agency procedures for training (and, if appropriate, discipline), not federal civil-rights litigation," they wrote.
Grimm agreed to throw out Hicks' civil conspiracy claims against the officers. But the judge ruled the officers aren't entitled to "immunity" from Hicks' claim that they violated his Fourth Amendment rights.
Grimm said there is no evidence the officers were following an "established protocol" or were acting reasonable under the circumstances when they continued to detain Hicks for more than 15 minutes after they knew that he was an on-duty Secret Service agent.
Sgt. Eduardo Delgado, a Park Police spokesman, said he can't comment on pending litigation but confirmed Ferreyra and Phillips both are still employed as Park Police officers. Attorneys for Hicks and the officers didn't immediately respond to telephone calls and emails seeking comment on Tuesday.
The judge's order says he will schedule a telephone call with attorneys to set a trial date for the case.
Hicks, now a retired 20-year veteran of the Secret Service, had been assigned to a protection motorcade for then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on the morning of July 11, 2015. The motorcade slowed to allow Hicks to join it, but officers continued to detain the agent. One of them mockingly waved at the passing vehicles, according to Hicks' attorneys.
Phillips briefly stopped Hicks a second time — allegedly for talking on a cellphone while driving erratically — after he drove away from the spot along Interstate 295 in Maryland where the officers initially detained him. Phillips continued to talk to Hicks in a demeaning tone before throwing his identification and registration at him, the suit alleges.
The judge ruled the defendants may be held liable for the second stop, as well.
Hicks' suit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
"That he was subjected to unlawful treatment because of his race compounds his emotional distress," the suit says.
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