Police Excessive Force Case Handled by PLG Was Top 100 Personal Injury Settlement in California for 2021
A widely reported police excessive force case, handled by Piccuta Law Group, was recently recognized as a top California result in 2021. The case was entitled Brown v. Howard and filed against the City of Stockton and its police officers. The lawsuit alleged that excessive force was used on the firm’s client when a gun was pointed to his head on a routine traffic stop and he was tasered. The case settled in 2021 for $235,000.
On May 3, 2022, it was reported that the $235,000 settlement ranked as a top 100 settlement with Top Verdict. Specifically, the result ranked as #83 on the list. A review of the list shows it was the only police excessive force case to rank in the top 100 with the majority of the other cases being car accident cases. A link to the list and rankings can be found at topverdict.com by clicking here.
Another police excessive force case against the City of Stockton, also handled by Piccuta Law Group, LLP, was recognized as a top 50 verdict in California for 2020. That case was Green v. City of Stockton. That case resulted in a $710,000 award for the firm’s client and a separate payment of $712,500 in attorney fees. The total amount recovered by Piccuta Law Group in that excessive force case was $1,412,500.
The Green v. City of Stockton case was ranked as the #48 highest verdict in California for 2020. A link to the list and rankings can be found at topverdict.com by clicking here. According to Top Verdict, “most attorneys/law firms would make a Top Verdict list only once in their history, while only around 3% of attorneys/law firms make the same list two years in a row.”
The Facts of the Police Brutality Case
The police excessive force case that resulted in a top 100 settlement for 2021 alleged the following facts in the complaint:
- At approximately 12:20 AM on June 3, 2015, Defendants Officer Daniel Villalobos (“Villalobos”) and Officer Laertis Moraitis (“Moraitis”) were on patrol. The two officers initiated a traffic stop of Plaintiff claiming that he had made an unsafe lane change while operating his sport utility vehicle. After pulling Plaintiff over, Villalobos parked the patrol car at angle to the curb and behind Plaintiff’s vehicle. Both Moraitis and Villalobos got out of the patrol car and eventually talked with Plaintiff while he was sitting in the driver’s seat of his vehicle.
- Moraitis got out of the patrol car first. Moraitis stationed himself in a “cover” position on the passenger side of Plaintiff’s vehicle. He stood approximately even with the rear door on that side but far enough away from Plaintiff’s vehicle to allow him to keep Plaintiff under surveillance.
- Villalobos walked up to the driver’s side window, which was open halfway, and asked Plaintiff for his driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance. Plaintiff gave Villalobos his driver’s license. Plaintiff told Villalobos he had the other items but he couldn’t find them because his SUV was “junky”, i.e., too much personal property. Villalobos told Plaintiff to look for the registration and proof of insurance. Villalobos further told Plaintiff that if the records check was clean, he intended to give Plaintiff a warning not a citation. Leaving Plaintiff to look for the registration and proof of insurance, Villalobos returned to the patrol car to “run” a records check on Plaintiff based on the information provided by his driver’s license. Moraitis remained in his cover position.
- Villalobos returned to his patrol car to use the on board computer to run Plaintiff’s license. Meanwhile Plaintiff began rummaging through his personal property looking for the registration and proof of insurance. Plaintiff also rolled down the front passenger window and turned toward that side of Plaintiff’s vehicle and asked Moraitis why they had pulled him over.
- At or about this same time, Defendants Officer Eddie Diaz (“Diaz”) and Eric Howard (“Howard”) arrived in another patrol car. They parked behind the patrol car Villalobos was in.
- Upon arriving, Howard immediately got out of the patrol car and walked up behind and close to Moraitis. Less than 30 seconds later and without discussing the details of the situation with either Moraitis or Villalobos, Howard removed his sidearm from its holster and made his way around the back end of Plaintiff’s vehicle and up to the driver’s door. Intending, one way or another, to get Plaintiff out of the vehicle, Howard grabbed and pulled the handle of the driver’s door and tried to open it. The door was locked.
- Hearing Howard’s effort to open the door, Plaintiff, who was still facing the passenger side, turned back around toward the driver’s side of his vehicle. At that moment Howard stuck his gun over the top of the halfway open window. Holding the muzzle inches from Plaintiff’s forehead, Howard told Plaintiff to get out of the vehicle because he was under arrest. Plaintiff nervously told Howard he was not going to get out of his vehicle with a gun in his face. Howard withdrew his gun.
- Howard testified that his recollection was that when he approached the window Brown expressed his opinion that he felt like he shouldn’t have to and stated that he felt like Howard had no reason to ask him to exit the vehicle. Howard further testified that he never told Brown why he wanted him to exit the vehicle. Howard further testified that he was not entirely concerned with his safety when telling Brown to exit the vehicle but simply wanted him out of the vehicle.
- Plaintiff’s right to express his opinion and right to free speech in saying that he believed he should not have to get out of the vehicle, upset Howard which then set in motion the following course of events.
- Plaintiff’s vehicle was equipped with electric windows. The driver’s side window is fitted with an automatic switch. Once the automatic switch is activated the window opens or closes without further assistance. Immediately after Howard withdrew his gun, Plaintiff, fearing for his safety, activated the switch to roll up the window. As the window was closing, Howard quickly pulled out his taser and stuck it over the top of the closing window.
- With his hand and the taser now just on the other side of the driver’s window glass, Howard told Plaintiff if he didn’t get out of the vehicle, he would tase him in his face. A split second later, as Plaintiff turned away toward the center console of the front passenger seat, Howard fired his taser. Two darts struck Plaintiff.
- Shortly after being tased, Plaintiff unlocked the front passenger door. He fell to the floor and urinated on himself. Defendants Diaz and Moraitis dragged Plaintiff out of the SUV through the passenger side front door. They made fun of his incontinence as they hand-cuffed him. Because he was unable to walk Diaz and Moraitis dragged him back to the patrol car Howard and Diaz had arrived in. They threw Plaintiff into the back seat.
- Because Plaintiff had been tased, Diaz and Howard took him to the hospital for examination and removal of the taser darts. Diaz and Howard then transported Plaintiff to the County Jail for booking. Plaintiff was falsely arrested for resisting arrest.
- Plaintiff was charged with a violation of Penal Code section 148, subdivision (a) (1), resisting a peace officer. In June 2016, following a trial by jury, Plaintiff was found not guilty.
A Police Officer Can be Found Guilty of Using Excessive Force For Pointing His Gun
In the Brown v. Howard case discussed above, one of the claims advanced was for excessive force because an officer pointed his gun at the client’s head. The United States Supreme Court set forth in the case of Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 53 U.S. 106, 108 (1977) that “once a motor vehicle has been lawfully detained for a traffic violation, the police officers may order the driver to get out of the vehicle without violating the Fourth Amendment’s proscription of unreasonable searches and seizures.” While an officer does have the right to order someone out of his or his vehicle during a traffic stop for safety or investigatory purposes, they may not use unreasonable force when doing so.
An Investigatory Detention Can Quickly Change Into a Wrongful Arrest That Violates a Citizen’s Rights
Whether an investigatory detention rises to the level of an arrest is a highly fact-specific determination that considers the reasonableness of the intrusive conduct in light of the specific circumstances. Green v. City and Cnty. of San Francisco, 751 F.3d 1039, 1047 (9th Cir. 2014). Regarding firearms, “when police draw their guns it greatly increases the seriousness of the stop.” Id. (citing Washington v. Lambert, 98 F.3d 1181, 1188 (9th Cir. 1996)). When an officer employs such tactics, the incident amounts to an unlawful arrest unless it is sufficiently distinct from the “ordinary circumstances.” Green, 751 F.3d at 1047. Given the absence of probable cause, when an officer points his firearm at a citizen, he turns an investigatory stop into an unlawful arrest, absent extraordinary circumstances permitting the use of a firearm at a traffic stop.
Case law holds that intrusive means such as drawing a gun while effecting a traffic stop have only been allowed under special circumstances.
Case law holds that intrusive means such as drawing a gun while effecting a traffic stop have only been allowed under special circumstances. Four such circumstances articulated in Washington v. Lambert are as follows:
1) where the suspect is uncooperative or takes action at the scene that raises a reasonable possibility of danger or flight; 2) where the police have information that the suspect is currently armed; 3) where the stop closely follows a violent crime; and 4) where the police have information that a crime that may involve violence is about to occur.
Another factor courts may consider is the number of officers at the scene. If a citizen is held at gun point during a traffic stop when they have not committed a crime and there is no probable cause that a crime has been committed, their constitutional right to be secure in their person is violated.
Tasing a Citizen In Dart Mode Is a Significant Use of Force
In the Brown case discussed above, the client was also tasered in dart mode for refusing to get out of his vehicle after an officer pointed a gun at his head. Controlling courts have held that tasers “used in dart-mode constitute an intermediate, significant level of force that must be justified by the governmental interest involved.” Bryan v. MacPherson, 630 F.3d 805, 825, 826 (9th Cir. 2010). Another line of cases holds that an officer, who tases a citizen for mere passive resistance, may be guilty of excessive force. Passive resistance can be described as refusing a command or instruction, but not participating in any active resistance such as pulling away or fighting with an officer.
Contact an Experienced Police Brutality Attorney to Discuss Your Civil Rights Case
If you or a loved one has experienced police brutality, excessive force or other police misconduct, contact the Piccuta Law Group today. One of our experienced civil rights lawyers is available now for a free consultation. We have experience in both state and federal court handling serious and high value civil rights cases against law enforcement. We have achieved seven and eight figure results in our civil rights cases. It costs nothing for a consultation. If we take your case, you only pay a fee to us if we recover for you. Contact us today.
About the author: The content on this page was written by California civil rights lawyer and Monterey personal injury attorney Charles “Tony” Piccuta. Piccuta graduated with honors from Indiana University-Maurer School of Law in Bloomington, Indiana (Previously Top 35 US News & World Report). Piccuta took and passed the State bars of Arizona, California, Illinois and Nevada (all on the first try). He actively practices throughout California and Arizona. He is a winning trial attorney that regularly handles serious personal injury cases and civil rights lawsuits. He has obtained six and seven figure verdicts in both state and federal court. In 2022 he set a record $11.75 million dollar settlement for a civil rights case against Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. He has been recognized by Super Lawyers for six years straight. He is AV Rated by Martindale Hubble. He is a member of the Consumer Attorneys of California, American Association for Justice, National Police Accountability Project, Arizona Association of Justice, Maricopa County Bar Association and Scottsdale Bar Association, among other organizations.
Disclaimer: The information on this web site is attorney advertising and is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice. Reading and relying upon the content on this page does not create an attorney-client relationship. If you are seeking legal advice, you should contact our law firm for a free consultation and to discuss your specific case and issues.