Sacramento officials are balking at paying a $5 million jury verdict awarded to a man who claimed he was falsely arrested by city police. They argue a new trial is needed because the amount of the verdict is excessive and the federal judge who oversaw the case was “highly prejudicial” against the main city detective who testified.
The city attorney’s office filed a motion in federal court in Los Angeles asking for a new trial in the case of a man who was arrested and charged in an Internet child-sex-abuse case in 2011.
The suspect was held in jail in Sacramento for six months before the charges were dismissed. He subsequently sued the city and Detective Heather Hendrickson, alleging the police fabricated evidence and that he was the victim of malicious prosecution and had his civil rights violated.
A jury in federal court in Los Angeles found for the plaintiff in March, awarding $5 million in compensatory damages and $5,000 in punitive damages, a finding the city labeled in court papers as “staggering.”
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U.S. District Judge Dean D. Pregerson ordered payment of the award, plus interest, on March 28 to the plaintiff, who is identified in court papers as “J.N.”.
But Sacramento’s city attorney’s office filed documents last week challenging the verdict and the manner in which the judge questioned Hendrickson during trial.
The city said that the award of $5 million in compensatory damages is “excessive” given evidence presented at trial.
“Regarding economic damages, he testified that he was employed as a laborer at the time of his arrest and that he was not earning income during the time he was incarcerated,” Senior Deputy City Attorney Sean D. Richmond wrote in the city’s motion for a new trial. “There was no evidence offered as to any specific amount of income lost.
“The lack of evidence compelled the jury to speculate completely on the amount of lost income.”
The city maintains that although J.N. lost his apartment while in jail, he provided no testimony to show how the incarceration affected him financially and that he testified only “vaguely” about the emotional toll.
“No psychiatrist or psychologist testified for plaintiff,” the city noted. “In fact, no expert testimony of any kind was offered to support or verify any of plaintiff’s damages.
“Despite the foregoing absence of evidence, the jury awarded plaintiff a staggering $5 million in damages.”
J.N.’s Santa Monica-based attorney, Jeff Dominic Price, said he was not surprised by the city’s filing.
“A new trial was expected and we are filing an opposition to it this week,” Price said.
Court papers filed by Price in the case describe J.N.’s arrest as a case of mistaken identity and shoddy police work.
Police opened a criminal investigation in 2011 after receiving a complaint from a Sacramento mother of a 12-year-old girl who was being contacted on Facebook by men who asked her to disrobe while they performed sex acts on themselves, court papers say.
The victim was using a laptop she had received for Christmas and was communicating through a Facebook site called “Tiny Chats,” according to court documents, which said one of the men had a Facebook account under the name “Pater Noster,” which is Latin for “Our Father.”
Hendrickson ran that name through law enforcement records and found a man with that name and a criminal history, then brought in the 12-year-old victim in March 2011 to look at a “six-pack” of photos that included one of the suspect.
The girl told police the photo of the suspect was “too skinny” but that it “kind of looks like him,” court papers say.
The suspect was arrested Aug. 15, 2011, in front of his Los Angeles apartment and brought to Sacramento, where he was charged with seven felonies.
The suspect told Hendrickson he did not have a Facebook account and had not committed the crimes, and court papers say police never found a Facebook account on his computer. In February 2012, the girl was brought in for an in-person lineup but did not recognize any of the men, court papers say. The charges were dismissed a few days later.
The city’s motion for a new trial claims that the judge’s questioning of Hendrickson about her investigation was improper.
At one point, the city claims, Hendrickson was testifying that when she presented the “six-pack” of photos to the victim the detective said, “If you see (Pater Noster) here, great, if not, we need to know that, too.”
“The court then incredulously asked Detective Hendrickson, ‘Why would you say that?,’” the city’s motion states. “By the tone and disgust in the way the court phrased the question, it was abundantly clear that the court felt that Detective Hendrickson’s comment was in appropriate.
“Without question, it gave the appearance that the court was advocating on behalf of plaintiff.”
The city also complained about the judge’s comments after Hendrickson testified “that many of the investigative files she left for the detective taking her place when she was reassigned from detective to patrol were thrown in the garbage.”
“The court again reacted with astonishment when it repeated the answer given by Detective Henderson,” the city said, quoting Pregerson as saying, “Thrown in the garbage?! Why?!”