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Monday, May 28, 2012

If Falsely Arrested, Take the Settlement Offer

     At 1:45 in the morning of September 26, 2007, a couple returning to their home in Millcreek, a suburban community adjacent to Erie, Pennsylvania, encountered a pair of burglars. When one of the intruders pointed a gun at the home owners, the husband tried to disarm him. In the scuffle, the burglar fired a shot into the ceiling, then ran out of the house with his partner. The burglars sped from the scene in a white minivan.

     Shortly after the incident in Millcreek, a pair of Erie police officers looking for the fleeing burglars, happened upon Maria Jordan parked in front of her house in a white minivan. Maria was about to pick up her husband, the night shift manager at a local Taco Bell.

     The Erie police officers ordered Maria out of the van at gunpoint, told her to hit the ground, then handcuffed the prone woman behind her back. Once they placed Maria into the patrol car (calling her an "idiot," and "retard"), the officers entered the Jordon house where, at gunpoint, they hauled Maria's 10-year-old stepson out of bed, and arrested her father. After handcuffing the boy and Jose Arenas, the officers searched the dwelling. They found nothing incriminating in the house, removed the handcuffs from the people they had arrested, then took leave of the citizens they had traumatized. (Other than being annoyed they had wasted time on these people, I doubt these officers gave these arrests and intrusions a second thought.)

     In 2009, Maria, her father, and her stepson sued the Erie Police Department in federal court for violating their civil rights. According to the complaint, the false arrests and police manhandling had caused the family "worry, humiliation, and anxiety." In defense of their actions, the officers said they should not be sued for doing their jobs. (Since when is making false arrests part of the job?) The city offered to settle the case out of court for $10,000. The plaintiffs turned down the offer, and the suit moved forward.

     On May 11, 2012, following a 4-day trial in the Erie federal court house, the jury found that the two Erie police officers had in fact violated the plaintiffs' civil rights. While finding that the defendants had acted improperly, these jurors didn't believe the false arrests and house search harmed the family in any way. As a result, in what could be interpreted as an insult, the jury awarded Maria Jordon $2, and her stepson and father $1 each.

     If the plaintiffs were angered and insulted by the token damages, they didn't let on. In fact, Maria's husband told a local reporter the family was pleased by the verdict because they had sought justice, not money.

     On May 26, 2012, the assistant city solicitor, unwilling to leave well enough alone, filed a motion asking the federal judge to order the plaintiffs to pay some of the city's legal costs created by the lawsuit. According to the Erie solicitor, Pennsylvania law "obligated a prevailing plaintiff to pay the defendant's post-offer costs after rejecting an offer more favorable than the judgement." The city wanted the judge to order the Jordons--the wronged parties in the suit--to pay $5,085 of the city's legal expenses.

     In March 2013, the judge dismissed the solicitor's case.

     

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