City, SPPD: Jury awards plaintiff $1 for arrest, civil rights violation

July 14, 2010
Santa Paula News

A 2007 report of domestic violence that led to a lawsuit alleging Santa Paula Police used excessive force was decided this month by a jury in federal court, who said there was a civil rights violation and awarded the plaintiff just $1 in damages.

Allegations against the other arresting officer, City of Santa Paula, the Santa Paula Police Department and a third officer were dismissed.

Jurors were instructed to give a $1 award - nominal damages - if Max Villanueva Vasquez failed to prove damages in the case. The case is unusual not only because of the $1 award. After the Department of Justice investigated the alleged violations of civil rights law they responded, stating, “After careful consideration, we concluded that the evidence does not establish a prosecutable violation for the federal criminal civil rights statutes.”

The jury based its verdict on a second Taser shock Senior Officer Cody Madison gave Vasquez, 28, while he and Officer Carlos Mitre were attempting to detain the man. The incident occurred at about 8 p.m. April 15, 2007, when Madison responded to a Fillmore Street residence for a domestic violence call from Vasquez’s then-girlfriend.

According to the incident report and documents filed by attorneys representing the city, Madison found the woman crying hysterically in the driveway and pointing toward Vasquez, who was standing by the front door. Vasquez was bleeding from lacerations to both his forearms, injuries the SPPD later learned had occurred when Vasquez broke the windshield of his own vehicle prior to the officers’ arrival.

“When Madison asked Vasquez what was going on, he said he’d never seen the woman before,” said Police Chief Steve MacKinnon. Madison told Mitre to stay with Vasquez and had returned to the woman when he heard the officer tell Vasquez to “sit down.”

Documents filed by Vasquez’s attorney Brian Vogel say although Vasquez complied, Mitre grabbed him “without warning” and roughed him up. MacKinnon said the incident report stated Vasquez did not sit down and instead attempted to enter the house.

Mitre grabbed Vasquez and a scuffle ensued; MacKinnon said Madison tried to help restrain the man, whom officers determined was under the influence of alcohol. Madison stunned Vasquez with the Taser and the officers were able to get one hand cuffed, but “as soon as it was turned off” the struggle resumed. At that point, “They were bouncing into the garage door,” and MacKinnon said Madison again used the Taser to complete the arrest.

Vasquez was taken to Santa Paula Hospital for a medical clearance, standard procedure for the SPPD and Ventura County Jail, where Vasquez was transported. Also standard procedure is having the FBI investigate all use of force incidents, and MacKinnon noted the report concluded a prosecutable civil rights violation had not occurred.

Although the SPPD did file resisting arrest charges, the District Attorney’s Officer dismissed them.

During the trial the city’s defense attorney Alan Wisotsky said Vasquez screamed curse words at officers. Madison stunned Vasquez the second time, eight seconds later, after he failed to comply with orders to put his hands behind his back, according to legal documents.

MacKinnon noted Wisotsky stated that when he spoke with jurors after the trial, they told him they believed Madison acted too quickly or didn’t give Vasquez enough time to comply before the second shock. They believed the second shock, he added, was excessive. “The jury found the first use of the Taser appropriate... but they had a concern on the second Taser.”

MacKinnon said he has his own concern, centered on the jury. “We didn’t educate the jury... eight seconds is not that long, but when you’re fighting with someone who is uncooperative it’s a long, long time.”

MacKinnon said the defense must “ask itself if we gave an adequate” explanation of “what kind of things can occur in eight seconds.... This person is combative, officers still do not know what is going on and what happened, whether he had a weapon,” was trying to enter the house to obtain same, or might make a grab at an officer’s revolver during the struggle.

MacKinnon added that at the hospital following the incident Vasquez apologized to the officers.

Vasquez received a laceration above his eyebrow from his fall following the initial Taser application, and had bruising to his neck from the struggle with officers. No medical expenses were entered into evidence, although Vogel showed photographs of Vasquez’s injuries.

Vasquez only testified about some loss of earnings and psychological effects of the incident. In his complaint, Vasquez stated he incurred about $2,500 in SPH emergency room expenses and brief loss of income, in addition to pain and public humiliation.

A Taser application lasts a maximum of five seconds - an officer can end it sooner - and as soon as the Taser is deactivated the stunned person returns to normal.

MacKinnon said the department won’t take any action, as the officers were found to have acted appropriately. He added that Madison, a nine-year department veteran who is now a sergeant, has an excellent work record - Madison was lauded more than year ago with a Life Saving Award for reviving a 4-year-old boy who accidentally hung himself in a closet - and no disciplinary actions.

Mitre left the SPPD, and worked for the Oxnard Police Department before changing careers.

MacKinnon said the incident was reviewed not only by the FBI, but also internally, standard practice for use of force incidents that involves three SPPD supervisors and training officers. “Right now the use of force report is often longer than the arrest report.... Then we have an annual review” of all such incidents.

MacKinnon noted jurors’ remarks that the $1 awarded to Vasquez stemmed only from the eight seconds that passed between the first and second Taser applications. “Maybe,” said MacKinnon, “we failed to educate these jurors better in the hazards of police work.”

The court has not yet decided who will pay legal fees in the case if the parties can’t reach an agreement on their own.

In August, the city’s insurer agreed to pay $250,000 to a man who filed a federal lawsuit alleging he suffered a serious back injury during a 2006 scuffle, and that included being stunned twice with a Taser. The city did not admit fault as part of that settlement.



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