Collinsville city manager: Insurance company made call to settle $100K 'Star Trek' dispute

News-DemocratMay 3, 2014 

Collinsville settled a civil rights lawsuit for $100,000 in connection with a traffic stop of two "Star Trek" fans but it wasn't the city's decision -- the insurance company made the call.

Terrance Huff, of Hamilton, Ohio, was stopped on eastbound Interstate 55-70 on Dec. 4, 2011, by Collinsville Police Officer Michael Reichert. Huff and his passenger, John Seaton, sued, claiming the two were unlawfully detained during a drug search that resulted in no charges.

Former Police Chief and current City Manager Scott Williams said the suit and settlement amount were decided by the city's insurance company. Williams said the city only recently learned of the decision by Argonaut Great Central Insurance Co., the city's insurance company, to settle the suit and the terms.

"The city of Collinsville was not involved in the decision to settle this lawsuit and continues to assert that no wrongdoing was done on the part of the city or the Collinsville Police Department," Williams said.

Daniel Kiss, one of Huff and Seaton's lawyers, said he was confident that a jury would have found in their favor, but the amount of the damages may have been small.

"We would have liked to keep going to get the other traffic stops made by Reichert, but there comes a point when you have to stop," Kiss said.

Huff obtained a copy of the video of the traffic stop and subsequent search from Reichert's dashboard video recorder. Huff edited the video, adding music and narration. He also added pictures of himself and Seaton at a Star Trek exhibit they attended at the St. Louis Science Center the weekend of the traffic stop. The YouTube video was titled "Breakfast in Collinsville."

During a deposition in the Huff lawsuit, Reichert testified that he sometimes wiped drugs on cars parked at local businesses to train his dog, without the knowledge of the vehicle's owners.

"That was truly amazing," Kiss said. "This practice (of marking cars with drug residue) could set other people up for later stops."

The traffic stop involving Huff and Seaton lasted about an hour.

And that may have been a reason to settle the case, said University of Richmond Law School professor Jack Preis.

A jury would have to find Huff was damaged by the stop and how much he should receive to compensate for the damage. Neither Huff nor Seaton were injured. Neither were charged with any crime.

The Huff settlement agreement, which was obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request, stated that the city admitted no liability and intended by this payment "to merely avoid litigation and buy their peace."

Huff will receive $60,000 and Seaton will receive $40,000. Legal fees to Huff's attorneys are be paid out of that settlement amount finalized on April 8.

That may be a consideration for the insurance company's decision to settle, Preis said.

In most civil cases, legal fees are each parties' responsibility, Preis said, but in civil rights cases, it's different.

"Legal fees can be a determining factor," Preis said. "In cases like this, defendants don't fear a lot in damages, especially if the case isn't egregious or the plaintiff doesn't have physical injuries, but they will pay attention to how much their lawyer may be costing."

Civil rights cases usually are settled for between $10,000 to $50,000, Preis said, and that doesn't leave a lot for legal costs to bring the cases.

"The law provides an incentive for lawyers to bring these kinds of cases because they have a broader impact to society as a whole," Preis said.

Reichert had been back on the job just over two years when he stopped Huff. Reichert had been fired in the face of a federal misdemeanor conviction but later won his job back.

The police and fire board fired Reichert after he was convicted of selling knock-off Oakley sunglasses.

The same federal judge who decided Huff's civil rights case, U.S. District Judge Michael Reagan, three times questioned the validity of another interstate vehicle search by Reichert nearly a decade before Reichert stopped Huff. That criminal case was eventually dismissed.

Disciplinary charges were filed against Reichert, alleging that because of his conviction and Reagan's finding, it could be used to impeach Reichert's credibility.

The police and fire board voted to fire Reichert. He sued. The 5th Circuit Appellate Court in Mount Vernon returned Reichert to his job and gave him $150,000 in back pay.

Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at bhundsdorfer@bnd.com or 618-239-2570.

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