Jury: Race was a factor in town of Beloit racial discrimination case

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Thursday, April 28, 2011
— Both sides are claiming victory after a three-day trial over racial discrimination in the Town of Beloit Police Department.

The jury late Wednesday afternoon determined that race was a factor when former Police Chief John Wilson denied local business owner Anthony Smith the right to apply to be on the department’s call list for towing services.

That’s a “huge victory” for Smith, his attorney Anne Sulton said.

However, the jury found that if race weren’t a factor, Wilson still would have denied Smith the right to apply even if Smith were white, court documents state.

“The jury came back and found there were reasons besides race for denying him (Smith) a right to apply to be on the tow list,” said Ben Brantmeier, attorney for the town of Beloit.

The jury also found that Wilson did not violate Smith’s 14th Amendment rights, according to court documents.

Finally, the jury determined the town did not have a policy of racial discrimination, the court documents state.

“That’s a verdict in favor of the defendants,” Brantmeier said.

The 14th Amendment guarantees equal protection, and Wilson did not treat Smith’s business, Flying AJ’s Towing, differently than “similarly situated white businesses,” court documents state.

Wilson did not retaliate against Smith by denying him the right to apply to after Smith complained about racial discrimination, the documents state.

The town will not be liable for damages because the jury did not find Wilson violated Smith’s 14th Amendment rights, Brantmeier said. The town could be required to pay Smith’s attorneys fees, Brantmeier said.

Sulton said she would submit her fees to the court. The court will approve an amount, but the town could argue against it, Brantmeier said.

Sulton said she will be filing additional motions in the case because the jury did not find completely in favor of her client.

Smith’s case is the first in a series of racial discrimination cases filed against Wilson and the town. The others were filed by current or former employees who claim that Wilson used racial language in the workplace and retaliated against employees who spoke out against the behavior.

In early 2009, the town reprimanded Wilson in writing and required him to take a sensitivity class after the police union in late 2008 filed a complaint against him.

Wilson retired in January.

Early that month, residents became outraged when a video of Wilson’s deposition showed him admitting to using the N-word at work.

Sulton posted the video to YouTube.

Sulton said that the general public needs to take responsibility to make sure public and elected officials aren’t using racist language or discriminating against people or businesses.

People must attend local council and board meetings, she said.

“It is crucially important for residents to be alert to and participate in their local government,” Sulton said.

The trial started Monday with two hours of jury selection. The plaintiffs called more than 15 witnesses, and the defense called two.

Both sides gave closing arguments early Wednesday afternoon, and the jury deliberated for about five hours before returning the verdict.

Last updated: 4:53 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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