Sheriff’s Office: Georgia woman’s 2019 traffic stop started with 14-mile chase

Published 4:25 pm Friday, April 23, 2021

SALISBURY — A 2019 traffic stop that’s the subject of a federal lawsuit started with a chase that lasted 14 miles and involved law enforcement officers flattening a woman’s tires in Davidson County, according to an incident report from the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office.

The 68-year-old Georgia woman, Stephanie Bottom, filed the lawsuit Wednesday in federal court for North Carolina’s Middle District about her treatment during the stop involving Salisbury Police and the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office. In the suit, Bottom says law enforcement officers used excessive force, drew their guns during the stop, pulled her out of the car by her hair and tore her rotator cuff.

Bottom asks for a jury trial, compensatory and punitive damages as well as court costs and attorney’s fees.

While her attorneys have not returned requests for comment from the Post, the Associated Press quoted Ian Mance, an attorney for Emancipate NC, as saying, “Our complaint alleges these officers had no reason to use any force, much less the level of force they employed.”

The suit says Bottom’s injuries required surgery that did not fully repair the shoulder and that she feared the police and did not want to pull over on the side of the interstate. She also said she was playing loud music in her car and didn’t realize police were trying to stop her.

Incident reports show the chase started around sunset on Thursday, May 30, 2019, when multiple agencies were running radar on Interstate 85. Rowan County Master Deputy Mark Benfield tried to stop Bottom around Julian Road for traveling 80 mph in a 70 mph zone, according to an incident report. Other sheriff’s deputies and police officers joined the chase.

The incident report describes one point during the chase where Master Deputy M. Smith sped up beside Bottom’s vehicle and saw her put “her hand up in a manner that suggested she didn’t care or was not sure what was going on.”

Stop Sticks, a brand name tire deflation device used by law enforcement agencies, were deployed at mile marker 87 — about 14 miles away from where the chase started and near the point where I-85 splits into I-85 Business near the Davidson County Airport.

Bottom’s vehicle stopped on left shoulder after the tires deflated. Benfield opened the driver’s side door and “commanded the driver to exit the vehicle to which she refused to obey commands several times,” an incident report states. Body camera footage shows Benfield pulling Bottom out of the vehicle by her arm. Former Salisbury Police officer Devin Barkalow is accused of pulling Bottom out of the vehicle by her hair.

Sgt. Adam Bouk of the Salisbury Police Department placed a handcuff on Bottom’s left hand “and the right hand was cuffed with the assistance of two other officers,” a sheriff’s office narrative states. Video shows officers pulling Bottom’s arms behind her back.

Attorneys for Bottom released video to the Charlotte Observer. While state law allows people pictured in body camera videos to receive a copy, Rowan County government is prevented from releasing the video without a court order.

The suit states police officers acted “unreasonably, maliciously, and without justification, because (Bottom) did not pose a threat … and was lawfully complying with the demands of the defendants to exit the vehicle with her hands up.” Video shows Bottom sitting in her vehicle, facing Benfield and responding to him when she is pulled onto the ground.

In a June 2019 review of the incident, Sgt. Jagger Naves of the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office cleared use of force used by deputies during the traffic stop. The report states Naves reviewed body camera footage.

Among other things, the report states Bottom:

• failed to stop for blue lights and sirens for about 14 miles and through two counties

• “simply threw her hands into the air when a uniformed officer pulled along side of her and motioned for her to pull over.”

• attempted to drive around the Stop Sticks that were used to deflate her tires.

“Sergeant J. Naves believes Master Deputy M. Benfield and Master Deputy M. Smith complied with the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office policy and procedures during this incident,” the use of force report states.

Bottom’s lawsuit disagrees with the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office assessment, saying “defendants were deliberately indifferent to the fact that their use of force was unreasonable, excessive and without lawful justification or excuse; and thus a violation of both statutory and constitutional law.”

The Rowan County Sheriff’s Office report does not address actions by Salisbury Police officer Barkalow. City of Salisbury Communications Director Linda McElroy said the police department completed a use of force report for Barkalow, but the document is part of his personnel record and can’t be released.

The lawsuit also alleges violations of constitutional amendments about unlawful searches and seizures, saying evidence found in the car would not support charges for speeding. An incident report states Benfield asked Bottom where her driver’s license was located and that she told him it was in her purse on the passenger side’s floorboard. It’s not clear in incident reports why deputies otherwise searched her vehicle.

In addition to officers involved in the stop, the lawsuit names Rowan County Sheriff Kevin Auten and Pennsylvania National Mutual Casualty Insurance Company. The presiding judge in the case is William L. Osteen, Jr.

Bottom is represented in court by Scott Holmes of the North Carolina Central University Civil Litigation Clinic and Mance.