Jury rejects lawsuit against police

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Jury rejects lawsuit against police By Karen White / Senior Times Writer 8-28-2001 SANTA MARIA — Two Santa Maria police officers used only reasonable force in removing a paraplegic from his car more than a year ago, a jury of five women and seven men found unanimously Monday. Mark Castro, 35, was the subject of a July 3, 1999, traffic stop. Police officers seized his vehicle after discovering he was driving without a license. Castro did not have his wheelchair in the car so officers pulled and lifted him out of the car and placed him on a nearby curb. Castro had sued Cpl. Norman Come, Officer Gary Steigler and the city of Santa Maria, charging violation of his civil rights, assault and battery, false arrest and racial bias. The civil trial started last Monday before Santa Maria Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville. Only nine affirmative votes are needed for a verdict in a civil case. The jury deliberated just 11/2 hours Monday afternoon before turning down Castro’s bid for financial compensation for the police actions. “Obviously, we are pleased the verdict supported the officers, because we had access to the facts in the case from the beginning and we did not believe that they did anything criminal or violate anyone’s rights,” said Santa Maria Police Chief John Sterling. “We do not necessarily see this as a victory, but as the working of the justice system. We had no problem with an independent jury looking at the facts of the case. The public usually only hears what is put out in the press, but the jury hears the entire case,” Sterling said. “However, after 25 years, I still feel saddened when a person who is lawfully arrested makes these types of allegations against officers who are just doing their jobs,” he said. Sterling, his two commanders and about a dozen on-duty and off-duty officers attended the closing arguments of the trial Friday. The Castro family claims this intimidated the jury, just before the decision. “Today 12 people, some of which do not live in the Santa Maria area, decided against my claim of police brutality and the use of excessive force,” Mark Castro said in a written statement late Monday. “I’m upset and disturbed that the 12 people basically gave the Santa Maria Police Department the rights to do as they please. They are protected by the badge and use that badge to intimidate those of us without one,” Castro said. “In the courtroom, there was at least 20 police officers and of those, half were on the clock. The taxpayers had their hard-earned tax money paying police officers to sit there and support their comrades,” Castro said. “Their presence there may have influenced or even possibly intimidated the jurors,” he charged. “My impression of the jurors was that they were biased. I feel I had not been given a fair trial. I feel that my word meant nothing. I have suffered physical injuries because of their (police) activities against me and I know that I have and will continue to have emotional injuries for a long time,” Castro said. Castro said that after being “unjustly treated … I decided to take legal action so that Santa Maria can see the kind of men that we have to ‘serve and protect’ us. The justice system has been decided, and I feel I have been unjustly treated again by the justice system,” he ended. Also speaking was Castro’s mother, Sylvia Guerrero, a witness in the trial. She had picked up her son after he was left on the curb by police. “I don’t feel we lost,” she said. “Santa Maria lost,” she said, adding “I feel sorry” because the decision gives the police and city the right to do whatever they want to do. “Ordinary citizens have no redress.” She also chafed at the accusation that she and her son lied. “They don’t know me,” she said. “I had no reason to lie.” Never arrested, she worked many years for the U.S. Post Office before her retirement. Castro was arrested after Com stopped his vehicle for playing loud music. Castro did not have a wheelchair, a cell phone to call for help, his shoes, hand controls on his vehicle, a driver’s license, car registration or proof of insurance. He testified he drove the vehicle using his hands and a stick for the foot pedals. Com and Steigler had to remove the 250- to 270-pound Castro from his 1985 Monte Carlo so it could be towed. Officers did call family members to pick up Castro after the traffic stop in the 1000 block of South Miller Street. Attorney Bruce D. Praet of Santa Ana, representing the police, urged the jury to show Castro he does not get rewarded for not taking responsible for his own actions. “The good news is that everyone has a right to sue,” he said. “The bad news is that anyone can bring a lawsuit.” He accused Castro, and other witnesses on his behalf, of lying in their testimony and depositions. He also reminded the jury that Castro, who brought the suit, had to “prove by the preponderance of the evidence” to have the case “tip the scales.” He called it a “cotton candy case,” one that “sounds good” at first, but is full of air. According to jury instructions, the testing standard of the incident was what “a reasonable police officer would do” in the same situation, Praet said. To Praet, it is reasonable to arrest a man who is driving without a license and also reasonable to tow the vehicle. And he asked what Castro’s contingency plan would have been if he had had a car problem. Castro’s attorney, Catherine J. Swysen, called the civil case simple. “It was wrong to drag Castro out of the car. There was no reason to do so. The police officers were doing something wrong… mistreating a victim,” she said. Swysen recommended reasonable compensation for her client’s physical and emotional injuries and pain and suffering at about $200,000. Before the trial, Santa Maria had made an offer of $50,000 to Castro, along with paying for hand controls for his vehicle if he would get the necessary licenses and registrations, according to a city official. * Staff writer Karen White can be reached at 739-2217 or by e-mail at kwhite@pulitzer.net. :nav Source: http://www.santamariatimes.com/articles/2001/08/28/news/export620.txt

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