Wednesday, April 24, 2002
Ninth Circuit Reinstates Schizophrenic’s Brutality Suit Against LAPD
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A Los Angeles man, who has been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and suffered what one judge called a “mysterious” back injury after an encounter with two city police officers, is entitled to a new trial on his claim of excessive force, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
A divided panel reversed U.S. District Judge Florence Marie Cooper’s grant of a directed verdict to the city in the case of Kam Santos.
Santos, who has a long history of mental problems, substance abuse, and legal difficulties, was arrested in December 1997. He testified that as best he remembers the incident, he was walking down Arlington Ave. towards home after getting off a bus when he saw the two officers pursuing him.
He was afraid, he said, because he had gotten out of prison 30 days earlier and had not reported to his parole officer. He said he dropped to his knees and put his hands behind his head.
The officers, he recalled, ran towards him. The last things he remembered, he said, were a blow to the head, great pain, and his screaming “Why did [you] have to break my back?” before passing out.
He claimed that he was paralyzed below the waist for about two weeks and was unable to walk unassisted for a year.
The officers testified to a very difference sequence of events. They said they took a radio call regarding a man “screaming and falling down in the street,” responded to the scene, and were told that a man had been roaming the neighborhood screaming and may have stolen something from a garage in the neighborhood.
Driving around the neighborhood, they said, they found Santos, who met the description of the man who had fallen down in the street and who was screaming periodically. They testified that they intended to take him into custody in order to determine whether a crime had been committed and if so, whether there was enough evidence to arrest him as the person who did it.
One of the officers said he twice told Santos to place his hands behind his head, but Santos would not do it, so the officer grabbed his wrists to handcuff him. Minimal force was used, the officer said, but Santos screamed “They’re beating me like Rodney King.”
A supervisor and an ambulance were called. After a sergeant came to the scene and asked Santos a series of questions, the responses to which made it seem as if he was not lucid, he was taken to the hospital.
Medical evidence indicated that Santos had a compression fracture of his L-2 vertebra, an extraordinarily high blood alcohol level—perhaps three times the legal limit if he had been driving—and traces of amphetamines in his system. The back injury, a doctor testified, had occurred within the previous several hours, or a few days previous at the earliest.
A defense expert, testifying out of turn before the plaintiff rested, said the back injury was unlikely to have caused paralysis, and that the nature of the injury was such that the pain was unlikely to have lasted more than six weeks.
Cooper ruled that the force used was reasonable as a matter of law and granted the defense motion for judgment at the close of the plaintiff’s case.
But Judge Stephen Reinhardt, writing for the Ninth Circuit, said there was sufficient evidence to send the case to a jury.
“Here, the officers admit to having applied force when restraining Santos. A jury might find believable the officers’ contentions that they did so gently, and accordingly might return a verdict in their favor,” the judge explained. “Alternatively, a jury might find the officers’ testimony that they were restrained in their use of force not credible, and draw the inference from the medical and other circumstantial evidence that the plaintiff’s injuries were inflicted on him by the officers’ use of excessive force.”
Reinhardt distinguished Jackson v. City of Bremerton, 268 F.3d 646 (9th Cir. 2001), holding that force used on the plaintiff, who was trying to prevent the police from arresting someone else, was reasonable.
While the force used in that case was “in some respects similar to the force applied to Santos, “ Reinhardt explained, the circumstances were radically different. Jackson involved an effort by six officers to break up a “melee” involving 30 to 50 people who had refused a command to disperse, the jurist noted, while Santos’ case involved a single individual.
Besides, the judge wrote, the plaintiff in Jackson suffered a broken finger—an injury the panel there characterized as “minimal”—not a broken back.
U.S. District Judge Frank Damrell of the Eastern District of California, sitting by designation, joined in the opinion. But Judge Richard Tallman dissented.
“With all due sympathy for Mr. Santos and his mysterious injury,” the dissenting jurist wrote, “I respectfully dissent from the Court’s opinion and its failure to abide by the latest pronouncements of the Supreme Court on use of force cases involving police officers.”
The officers, Tallman argued, violated no constitutional right of the plaintiff’s and are entitled to qualified immunity.
The case is not, he elaborated, a contest in which jurors must choose whose version of the facts is more credible. Santos’ version of events, he declared, was uncorroborated and could not be believed by any reasonable jury.
Santos, he noted, told a story that was completely unbelievable, his description of the place of the encounter including an alley and a fence that apparently didn’t exist. “Moreover, there is no dispute that Mr. Santos not was not taking his psychotropic medications, was behaving in a manner consistent with paranoid schizophrenia exacerbated by a substantial amount of straight bourbon whiskey, and was screaming in broad daylight when neighbors called for help,” the judge wrote.
Attorneys in the case were Stephen Yagman for the plaintiff and Janet Bogigian of the City Attorney’s Office for the defendants.
The case is Santos v. Gates, 00-56114.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company