For seven years, dirt track driver Randy Smith has waited for his day in court after claiming off-duty Chester deputies wrongly arrested him in front of thousands of racing fans after he was wrecked by another driver. Unless a settlement is reached, Smith gets his shot at justice.
No checkered flag. No pit road squabble. Just a federal judge, jurors, and a lot more money than the $3,000 at stake in the 2009 race on the line. Finally, a green flag.
“I have waited a long time for this,” Smith said. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Smith and his lawyers have said deputies knocked him to the ground injuring Smith’s shoulder, handcuffed him in front of the crowd, and then Smith spent more than half a day in jail.
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The officers have said they were defending themselves.
Witnesses said the officers “leveled” Smith and that the beating he took was “vicious.” Smith said he had two black eyes, was kicked in the ribs and punched in the head.
The deputies and their lawyers claim otherwise, saying there was probable cause to arrest Smith for misdemeanor assault after Smith approached a driver after a collision that put Smith out in a heat on Sept. 12, 2009 at I-77 Speedway in Chester. The officers say Smith was ready to punch that driver and the officers stopped it.
There seems to be no doubt that Smith pointed a finger at the other driver, Chad Paxton, gave Paxton some choice words, and then took a pummeling from the officers. What is at issue is whether Smith assaulted Paxton giving the cops a reason to restrain Smith.
The criminal charge against Smith were dropped after his arrest. He has fought in the civil courts for years to clear his name, seeking to have a court rule that he was right and the police were wrong.
A federal appeals court ruled recently that the trial should go on. It also stated that probable cause for arrest had been met.
“While words do not constitute an assault, if by words and conduct a person intentionally creates a reasonable apprehension of bodily harm, it is an assault,” the appeals court ruling states.
Now it is up to a jury to decide if Smith asked for the whippin’, or the cops wrongly gave it to him.
In previous court testimony, Smith balked when the lawyers for the officers portrayed the crowd as “riotous mob,” and “drunken,” and that fights happened all the time at dirt tracks despite there being only one other arrest in a decade at the Chester track.
The police said Smith was using “sensationalized rhetoric” to describe his arrest and injuries and “cherry picked” his recollections.
Lawyers for the deputies - a father and son tandem of officers named William and Torrey Murphy, and another deputy named Charles Grant - appealed a federal judge’s ruling in the summer of 2014 that the deputies were not immune from being sued for false arrest. A federal appeals court ruled recently that federal district court judge Joseph Anderson was right and the trial should go on.
Smith and the three officers are expected to testify, according to court documents. Because no video of the entire incident has been found, the trial will likely be a question of who is more believable - the injured driver with no arrest record, or the three cops, or the dozen people who saw it.
Jurors were picked last week. There is an April 13 meeting between the two sides and the judge. An April 18 trial is set in Columbia. The trial is expected to last a week.
The trial should be almost as much of a spectator sport as a race. Smith, of Fort Mill where he runs a collision shop, is a York County Sports Hall of Famer after an All-American career at Wofford. On the witness list for Smith’s side are a dozen people who saw the fracas and character witnesses such as Dennis Partlow, chairman of the Hall of Fame, and Danny Funderburke, the former mayor of Fort Mill.
The other driver, Chad Paxton, is also expected to testify.
Smith will have his chance to talk about his claim that after he was arrested he was left outside the main entrance of the track in handcuffs where fans who came to see him race saw him waiting to go to jail.