MONTPELIER, Vt. — A former sheriff has been ordered to pay $50,001 for violating the free-speech rights of a courthouse gadfly in 1999.
On March 28, a jury in U.S. District Court in Brattleboro returned the verdict against R.J. Elrick, former Rutland County sheriff. Elrick must pay $50,000 in compensatory damages and $1 in punitive damages to Scott Huminski, 46, formerly of Bennington and now of North Carolina.
As sheriff, Elrick ordered Huminski to leave the Rutland courthouse grounds after Huminski parked there and posted a sign on his truck critical of a judge.
"Elrick's own attorney told the jury that they could only award punitive damages if Elrick was found to have acted with malice," Huminski said in an e-mail. "The jury did find that malice."
Huminski's lawyer, Robert Corn-Revere, confirmed the outcome of the case yesterday. Messages left at Elrick's office and at the office and home of his lawyer, Pietro Lynn, were not immediately returned. Elrick is now executive director of the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council, which operates the state police academy.
"They (the jury) determined that punitive damages were justified because the deprivation of his First Amendment rights had been wanton, meaning reckless and with callous disregard" of Huminski's rights, said Corn-Revere, a Washington lawyer who specializes in First Amendment cases.
Of the $1 award for punitive damages, he said, "The jury decided to temper justice with mercy when it came to actually charging the sheriff with additional damages." He said attorneys fees in the case against Elrick were yet to be determined.
The case was triggered by an incident in 1999, when Huminski was angry about the outcome of a case he had had in the Vermont District Court in Bennington in which Judge Nancy Corsones presided.
Corsones was later assigned to Rutland. Huminski, who for a time variously described himself as a "court reporter" and "defender of justice," went to the Rutland courthouse while Corsones was presiding there, parked in the parking lot and put a sign on the side of his truck that read "Judge Corsones: Butcher of the Constitution."
Court officials later said they ordered Huminski away from the courthouse grounds, and barred him from all courthouses in Vermont, because they feared he might turn violent, which he didn't.
Huminski filed suit against the judges, Rutland court manager Karen Predom, Elrick and the Rutland County Sheriff's Department. The state attorney general's office settled Predom's portion of the case with Huminski last year, agreeing to pay $200,000 in damages and legal fees.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Corsones and Judge Patricia Zimmerman, who were both involved in the no-trespass orders against Huminski, violated his First Amendment rights. But it ruled the judges were not liable for damages.
Corn-Revere said the jury's task was to determine the damages to assess against Elrick. Still to be decided by Judge J. Garvan Murtha is whether to issue the court order sought by Huminski and Corn-Revere that would bar the sheriff's department from enforcing any similar no-trespass order against Huminski in the future.
While the First Amendment case was pending, Huminski was a prolific writer of e-mails and letters accusing Vermont officials including Attorney General William Sorrell and former Gov. Howard Dean of corruption.
Huminski said of Elrick in an e-mail yesterday, "So now we have a malicious civil rights violator training every single police officer in Vermont."
Corn-Revere said he hoped the former sheriff had learned something about the First Amendment. "Hopefully this decision will help him get better training on compliance with the Constitution. ... I think he's gotten an advance tutorial at this point."