ACJP/De-Bug Member Wins Federal Civil Jury Trial Against Officer Who Used Excessive Force!

Three years ago Danny Pina walked into our Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project meeting at De-Bug with a cast on his arm, a busted nose, and a false resisting arrest charge — all for riding his bike without a light. He was determined to share the truth of what happened to him, and as it says in the paper, “bring the officer to justice.” He stayed committed, came to meetings regularly as he continued to work, and tried not to let the episode of injustice dictate the terms of his life. The District Attorney dropped the charges, and Danny, with De-Bug supporters, filed his claim against the city. When he city denied their liability, he retained an attorney and filed suit in federal court. They tried to offer him a settlement, but Danny wanted his moment in court. This past Monday, he had that moment, and he didn’t waiver from his mission.

When on the the stand, the city attorney attempted to disparage Danny’s character. “Isn’t it true you didn’t finish high school?” he asked. “You didn’t have a job at the time of the incident did you?” he said while looking at the jury. “You didn’t own a car did you Mr. Pina?” he asked with an accusatory tone. Danny, handled the questions gracefully and honestly. And as his attorney Jaime Leanos said in his closing, “Just because you have less money does not mean you should not be afforded the same rights as anyone else in America.”

The city attorney’s strategy backfired. While explaining how they arrived at a unanimous verdict finding of excessive force on the officer who dislocated Danny’s arm, and broke the cartilage in his nose, the jurors critiqued the city attorney’s cross-examination of Danny. They told that the characterization of Danny seemed offbase and not relevant to the facts of the case.

From that first meeting at De-Bug, Danny always said it wasn’t just about him or the money, he just wanted to prevent others to experience what he did. Three years later, he did just that. While settlements regarding excessive force for SJPD officers have been reached (by other De-Bug members as well) I personally can not remember a jury finding of excessive force in federal court, and either could Danny’s attorney.

Here is the news article from today’s Mercury News, and the photo was taken from the moment we stepped out of federal court, knowing Danny finally got the justice he was not only seeking, but fought for.

MERCURY NEWS: San Jose Police Officer Found Liable For Excessive Force On Cyclist

By Tracey Kaplan, Mercury News  — A San Jose police officer who broke a cyclist’s nose and dislocated his elbow after stopping him for a missing headlamp three years ago used excessive force, a federal jury has found.

The verdict in the civil case was viewed as vindication by community activists who have long complained about what they describe as the department’s record of police brutality.

“I’m glad the truth was told,” said the plaintiff, Danny Piña. “I’m glad the officer was brought to justice.”

But City Attorney Rick Doyle noted that the panel on Monday awarded Piña only $11,000 in damages, as well as attorney’s fees and costs that are likely to exceed $100,000.

While the eight-member jury found that Officer Allan De La Cruz used excessive force, it concluded that his partner, Jean Jimenez, did not.

“It’s one of those things where reasonable people can differ over what happened,” Doyle said. “At the end of the day, it was a gang neighborhood and the guy ran from them.”

The April 19, 2009, incident began about 11 p.m. when the officers from the Violent Crime Enforcement Team stopped Piña on the grounds of the missing headlamp after misidentifying him as a gang member. He was apparently wearing something red, the signature color of Nortenos.

Such “pretext” stops are legal, as long as the minor transgressions exist. San Jose police say the stops give them a chance at catching people with outstanding warrants, drugs or weapons.

say Piña resisted being detained.

But neighbors, who testified at the trial, heard Piña asking, “Why did you hit me in the head?” and “Why did you punch me?” according to police reports. The district attorney declined to file resisting-arrest charges against Piña.

Piña’s case was cited in a Mercury News report in late 2009, which reported San Jose had been charging far more people with resisting arrest, compared with its population, than any other major California city, and that a disproportionate number of those charged were Latino residents.

About 70 percent of cases reviewed by the paper involved the use of force by officers, and the district attorney declined to file charges more than one-third of the time.

The jury in the Piña case told defense attorney Jaime Leanos that they found retired Los Angeles police Lt. Roger Clark’s testimony particularly persuasive. Clark testified that the degree of force was unwarranted.

Leanos said the $11,000 award was more than twice as much as the $5,000 the city offered Piña to settle the case. Piña, who works in a body shop, hadn’t missed a day of work in nearly three years, which led the jury to believe he was not terribly injured, Leanos said. But Piña worked despite persistent pain in his arm, Leanos said.

San Jose police declined to comment on the verdict while activists called it a crucial win.

“This may be an important litmus test for SJPD. Are they just going put the officer back on the streets as if nothing happened?” said Raj Jayadev, director of Silicon Valley De-Bug, a community organization for young adults. “We are hoping they take this jury finding seriously and evaluate this officer’s role within the department, as well as use this as a learning moment to evaluate their use-of-force practices.”

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