Cop Denied Immunity in Excessive-Force Case
SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) - Though he upheld a jury's finding that a cop used excessive force in subduing a raucous bachelor party, a federal judge nixed an award of punitive damages.
The altercation occurred one Saturday night in August 2009 when "a bachelor party at the Hilton San Jose got out-of-hand," U.S. District Judge Paul Grewal explained in the Friday decision.
"After the hotel called the police, the arriving officers confronted a number of party guests emptying out of an elevator in the hotel's lobby."
Officer Bruce Barthelmy approached one of the guests, Aleksandr Binkovich and touched him on the shoulder.
"When Binkovich brushed Barthelmy aside and attempted to walk past, Barthelmy took Binkovich into custody using a wristlock and leg sweep that knocked Binkovich over a planter and to the ground," the decision continues.
Though Binkovich said he reacted after being grabbed without warning, "three sworn officers testified that Binkovich stumbled out of the elevator, waving a belt around his head like a weapon, and reeking of alcohol," Grewal wrote.
"Binkovich stumbled in their direction, still waving the belt, and Barthelmy touched his shoulder, guided him toward the wall, and asked him to talk to them," the summary of that testimony continues. "Binkovich hit his hand away and assumed an aggressive posture. Responding to this perceived threat, Barthelmy swept Binkovich's legs out from under him, and the pair of them tripped over a planter. Once on the ground, Barthelmy placed Binkovich in a wristlock and arrested him."
Binkovich's excessive force claims against faced a week-long trial, but Barthelmy never invoked qualified immunity, which might have protected him against legal repercussions from his work as a police officer, according to the ruling.
After the jury found Barthelmy's actions were excessive and awarded Binkovich compensatory and punitive damages in April, the officer moved for judgment as a matter of law, saying he is entitled to immunity or a new trial.
But Grewal found that it would "severely prejudice" Binkovich if he were to let Barthelmy assert qualified immunity after an "unreasonable delay."
"This case ran for two years and eight months, from complaint to jury verdict," the decision states. "In that time, Binkovich's costs and expenses in pursuing the suit escalated dramatically as trial approached.
Grewal noted that Barthelmy's decision to litigate the matter through trial "impos[ed] substantial burden and expense not only on Binkovich but also on the court and nine members of the community, who were called to abandon their daily lives for over a week to resolve this dispute."
"Those costs must factor into the court's analysis," the 21-page decision states. "Because Binkovich has been prejudiced to the tune of over a hundred thousand dollars, and because the protection from suit afforded by qualified immunity has been 'effectively lost' given the week-long trial, Barthelmy has waived his right to invoke qualified immunity."
Evidence supports the finding that Barthelmy used excessive force, Grewal added, upholding the award of compensatory damages.
The award of punitive damages on the other hand cannot stand as there was no evidence that "Barthelmy did not just make a mistake, but rather [went] out of his way to hurt Binkovich," according to the ruling.
Grewal also granted Binkovich more than $103,000 in attorneys' fees.