DOBSON — A Mount Airy man who impersonates Otis the town drunk from “The Andy Griffith Show” is suing two police officials and the city government over his 2011 arrest for obstructing a sidewalk.
James E. Slate, who filed the lawsuit Tuesday in Surry County Superior Court, claims that his rights have been abused and he has suffered financial harm as a result of being taken into custody for the alleged ordinance violation.
Slate, 65, was found guilty of the obstruction offense after a Feb. 17 hearing before a judge in District Court in Dobson and fined $50. But he is appealing the case to Superior Court where it could be tried before a jury.
In the meantime, the lawsuit he filed this week alleges false arrest by Mount Airy police “for an unconstitutional city ordinance violation.” Named as defendants, in addition to the city, are Police Chief Dale Watson and Capt. Richard Lowe.
The city’s attorney said Wednesday he believes police have acted properly in the matter and that the municipality will “vigorously defend itself.”
Slate frequently appears in public as the Otis character — which includes wearing a seersucker suit and hat and carrying props such as a moonshine jug and set of jail keys. One of Slate’s activities has included playing checkers with Mayberry tourists outside his son’s store in downtown Mount Airy using a small table and chairs.
But he was arrested on April 21, 2011, by Lowe for what police have said were repeat violations of a nearly 50-year-old municipal ordinance that prohibits placing items on walkways in front of downtown stores. On the day of the arrest, the table was against the building and stuck out less than a foot.
Police have said that Slate wasn’t playing checkers or dressed as Otis at the time of his arrest and that he ignored multiple warnings to remove offending items. Slate, himself a former city policeman as well as a disabled veteran, subsequently was handcuffed and taken to the county jail in Dobson for what he says was a minor civil offense.
Lawsuit documents filed this week in Dobson charge that the city ordinance prohibiting sidewalk obstructions is outdated by “today’s standards,” in not allowing items a disabled person might require such as a chair.
Slate, who believes the ordinance is too broad, has said he was allowed to play checkers without interference in the past. But police said they had begun a more-vigorous enforcement of the measure at the request of downtown officials, which led to the arrest.
Monetary damages of $500,000 are being sought against Lowe, whom the suit claims “acted maliciously and with intent to injure plaintiff.”
Court documents filed on behalf of Slate also state that he has suffered lost income of about $30,000 per year due to losing a job as a deputy sheriff and detention officer in Yadkin County shortly after his arrest in 2011. The lawsuit further cites financial losses of more than $2,000 to defend himself against the charge, including various District Court appearances in which the case was continued.
Slate, who is seeking a dismissal or deferred prosecution of the violation pending against him, said he would like to meet with city officials to try and settle the issue out of court.
“Four years ago, I was allowed to play checkers in front of my son’s store,” he said after the suit was filed. “I’d like to be able to do that again.”
City Attorney Hugh Campbell commented on the lawsuit Wednesday, although he had not had an opportunity to review its allegations.
“At this point, I haven’t seen it,” Campbell said. “To my knowledge, the suit has not been served.”
However, the attorney said that based on his understanding of the case, he believes police acted properly and the municipality is on firm legal ground.
“It will be a matter for the city to look at,” Campbell said of the suit, “and I’m sure that we will defend it because we deny that we’ve done anything wrong in this matter.”
The city government “will vigorously defend itself against any claims of wrongdoing,” he added.
Mayor Deborah Cochran had no comment on the lawsuit Wednesday, citing the fact that it involved pending litigation, and referred questions to the city attorney. But Cochran did point out that the ordinance in question has been on the books since 1963, and its enforcement was requested by downtown leaders.
Watson, the police chief, said Wednesday he had not seen the lawsuit and declined comment on its filing.
A formal response to the suit is expected from the city at some point.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or email@example.com.