By Jane Musgrave The Palm Beach Post
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Less than a year after he was acquitted of criminal charges in connection with the beating of a suspect, a former Boynton Beach police officer on Thursday was again cleared of allegations of wrongdoing.
In a ringing victory for ex-cop Justin Harris and the city of Boynton, a federal jury hearing the civil trial found he did nothing wrong when he arrested now 36-year-old Bennie Robinson for obstruction of justice during an August 2013 traffic stop on Northwest 4th Street.
Instead, it found Robinson, who now lives in North Lauderdale, used threatening language, clenched his fists and gave Harris good reason to fear for his safety. It unanimously agreed that Harris didn’t violate Robinson’s free speech rights or his Fourth Amendment right against illegal search and seizure.
“We are pleased the jury recognized and affirmed that Officer Justin Harris dutifully performed his job in accordance with the law and found in favor of the city and Officer Harris on all claims made in this matter,” City Manager Lori LaVerriere said in a statement.
Attorney Hugh Koerner, who sought roughly $31,000 in damages for Robinson and an unspecified amount in punitive damages, declined comment on the verdict that came after a three-day trial.
Harris, who left the police department in 2015 to open a kickboxing gym near Wellington with his wife, couldn’t be reached for comment. He now works as a reserve officer, Koerner said.
Harris was among four Boynton cops who in November were tried on various charges in connection with the August 2014 beating of an unarmed passenger in a car that led police on a high-speed chase. He and another officer were acquitted of charges of using excessive force against Jeffrey Braswell. Two others were convicted — one of excessive force and another of obstruction of justice. Both were sentenced to six months of house arrest.
During closing arguments on Thursday, Harris’ attorney Danna Clement insisted that Robinson and his girlfriend turned what should have been a routine traffic stop into a confrontation. Robinson’s girlfriend jumped out of her van, demanding to know why she had been stopped. Robinson opened his passenger door, demanding Harris’ partner treat his girlfriend with respect.
Koerner claimed Robinson was just exercising his First Amendment rights. Clement countered that he added to Harris’ anxiety. While the two sides disputed whether Harris pulled out a gun or a taser to subdue Robinson, Clement said his actions were justified by Robinson’s outburst.
In the end, nothing came of the traffic stop. Prosecutors dropped the obstruction charge against Robinson. His girlfriend was given a warning for speeding.