A man alleging excessive force by a Durham police officer will have his case considered by the North Carolina Court of Appeals next week.
The case, which stretches back seven years, has not yet gone to trial. Officer Nicholas Schneider is accused of using a clothesline move to detain a drug suspect who claims he had his hands in the air. Schneider’s takedown of the suspect, Durham resident Joseph Ledbetter, resulted in the loss of eight teeth, facial cuts to the bone, a broken nose and permanent scars, he claims.
Schneider, a former member of DPD’s Selective Enforcement Team, maintains that he learned the takedown move in the police academy, and that it was appropriate considering the dangerous circumstances surrounding the arrest that day. He argues that Ledbetter’s injuries were incidental.
On June 20, 2007, at around 5 p.m., Ledbetter, then 50, met up on Umstead Street with a drug dealer named Slim and purchased three packages of cocaine. Ledbetter intended to resell the drugs to another man.
Ledbetter didn’t know it, but he was being surveilled by the Selective Enforcement Team, operating on a tip from a confidential informant. During Ledbetter’s walk back down Roxboro Street, a police SUV carrying multiple officers pulled up in front of him. Ledbetter testified to weighing 140 pounds, with a height of 5 feet, 6 inches. Schneider, then 28 and listed in court documents as 170-pounds and muscular, hopped out of the backseat.
Here is where the two accounts differ. Schneider claims that prior to the mission, he had been told that Ledbetter was a cocaine dealer who “was known to run” from law enforcement. Schneider testified that he saw Ledbetter “blading” his body—that is, it looked like he was taking a step forward as if to take off running. Schneider claims that he yelled, “Police. Get on the ground.”
Ledbetter offers a different account. Prior to the altercation, he says, he’d been told that police were in the area. When he saw police officers in the SUV, he stopped walking and raised his hands in the air, he claims. He contends that Schneider charged him in a running crouched position and, without provocation or warning, hit him in the throat and head with his forearm and drove his head into the concrete with full force, causing his body and face to slide across the concrete.
Two eyewitnesses standing about 30 feet away said that Ledbetter had his hands raised when Schneider hit him. One described the takedown as an arm hook to the neck, similar to a professional wrestling move in which a fighter drives his opponent’s face into the mat.
After the takedown the police retrieved the cocaine form Ledbetter’s pocket and left the scene. EMTs took Ledbetter to the hospital.
No evidence was produced suggesting Ledbetter had a history of running from law enforcement.
Following the incident, Schneider was cleared of wrongdoing by the police.
Ledbetter filed his original complaint in 2012, listing several more defendants, including additional DPD officers, the police department and the City of Durham. But this past March, Durham Superior Court Judge Howard Manning dismissed the claims against all defendants with the exception of Schneider. In June Schneider appealed Manning’s ruling, arguing that he was protected by public official and qualified immunities.
The case could come down to whether or not Schneider acted with malice, which would breach immunity protections.
Needing to make a split-second decision in a known high-crime neighborhood, Schneider says, he believed he acted with objective reasonableness, which is the standard used in use-of-force cases.
The Court of Appeals will not rule on the excessive force claim. It will merely decide whether Ledbetter has enough evidence to go to trial.
In 2006, coincidentally, a different Durham resident named Joseph Ledbetter—a man with a lengthy criminal history—was involved in a case involving a police officer being dragged across pavement. Around midnight, this Joseph Ledbetter was pulled over by a DPD officer, who asked him to step out of the vehicle. Rather than cooperate, Ledbetter sped away, dragging the police officer along the pavement for more than two blocks, according to a news report.