A jury on Wednesday awarded $125,000 to a Citrus Heights man who said he was falsely arrested and roughed up during a traffic stop by California Highway Patrol officers, but the jury declined to assess the more than $1 million in damages and penalties sought by the man’s lawyers.
Harrison Orr, 78, said after the verdict was delivered in Sacramento federal court that he was “a little bit disappointed,” but that he believed it was important to hold the CHP accountable.
“The money wasn’t the main point of suing at all,” Orr said. “I just wanted them to get more than a slap on the wrist.”
Orr’s attorneys presented evidence during the 10-day trial that CHP officers are under orders to meet a quota on traffic stops and citations.
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Orr, then 76, was pulled over on Aug. 6, 2013, around 11 a.m. on southbound Business Loop 80 near the Marconi curve for what CHP Officer Jay Brame testified was slow driving, an unsafe lane change and “drifting.” Brame suspected Orr of driving under the influence.
Despite Orr’s protests that he did not drink, smoke or use street drugs and that a stroke had left him unable to walk a straight line and affected his speech and balance, he was subjected to a field sobriety test and told he was being arrested for DUI and taken to the patrol’s north area station for further evaluation.
Evidence at the trial showed that another CHP officer – Terry Plumb – arrived and joined Brame in insisting that Orr be handcuffed. Orr objected, saying he could not keep his balance without his hands free and would fall, and he struggled with the officers to avoid the cuffs.
Evidence showed that Plumb punched Orr in the stomach and swept his feet out from under him, knocking him to the highway’s gravel shoulder.
Photos displayed to the jury showed massive bruising on Orr’s backside and legs, and he testified he was in pain for seven weeks.
Orr was eventually arrested for resisting arrest and was booked into the Sacramento County Mail Jail on that charge, but the District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute him for lack of evidence. He spent approximately 14 hours in custody, first at the patrol station and then in jail.
He sued the CHP and the two officers in March 2014, alleging false arrest, civil rights violations, assault and battery, and elder abuse.
The jury of five men and three women found Brame blameless, but determined that Plumb unreasonably seized and wrongfully arrested Orr for resisting arrest, and that Plumb used excessive force in violation of the U.S. Constitution.
It was on those findings that the panel assessed the defendants $125,000. That money will go to Orr, and the state will also have to pay his attorneys their fees and expenses. Those amounts will be determined later.
Deputy Attorney General Stephen Pass, who represented the CHP and the officers, declined to comment after the verdict. Attorney Michael Haddad of Oakland, who represents Orr, said the verdict vindicates his client.
“Anytime a regular person can bring two state police officers into court and hold either accountable for their civil rights violations, it’s a great victory for the Constitution and the rest of us,” Haddad said.
During the trial, Haddad and his partner, Julia Sherwin, produced evidence that Brame’s superiors routinely admonish him for failing to meet the goals for “enforcement contacts” with motorists, and Brame testified that he was told he needed to make enforcement contacts with at least 100 motorists a month, regardless of whether they are violating the law.
Orr’s attorneys insisted the evidence shows Brame’s superiors have a quota for the number of citations and other stops officers must make each month, which is illegal under California law. CHP officials would not comment on the lawsuit, but insisted to The Sacramento Bee that the agency does not use quotas for citations nor any other enforcement actions.
Denny Walsh: (916) 321-1189