LAPD Shooting Victim to Keep $3.2M Award
LOS ANGELES (CN) - A federal judge refused to grant a new trial to a Los Angeles Police officer who was found to have used excessive and unreasonable force in shooting a mentally ill woman.
U.S. District Judge Christina Snyder court denied the City's request for a new trial, concluding that Officer Brent Houlihan and Officer Bezak violated the civil rights of Valerie Allen, then 37, during her arrest in the fall of 2009.
Allen, who has bipolar disorder, was suffering a manic episode when Houlihan shot her three times at close range.
Though she survived the shooting, she was also Tasered by Bezak as police restrained her on the ground, according to court documents.
Allen sued the city, its police department, Bezak, Houlihan, and his parent Nam Phan in Federal Court in 2010.
Allen's attorney Martin Stanley told Courthouse News that the court's decision was "entirely correct" and that his client was "pleased the court did the right thing."
"The officers obviously had serious credibility issues, and their varying stories didn't add up," Stanley said in an interview. "Eight sophisticated and educated jurors from the community all unanimously found wrongdoing on the part of the officers."
According to the police, Houlihan and Phan encountered a half-naked and disorientated Allen on Sep. 3, 2009, and gave chase after she approached their squad car, then ran away.
The officers found her on the front yard of a residence on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood.
In the interim, Allen had climbed a wrought iron fence and used a garden hose to spray Houlihan with water, according to the police account.
The police claimed that Allen hit Phan with a wooden stake, knocking him to the ground. Houlihan told Allen to drop the stake but according to police, she raised it to strike Phan again before Houlihan shot her three times.
Despite the gunshots, Allen resisted arrest, the officers said, and was Tasered by Bezak, who had responded to a call for back-up.
But Allen said the officers' testimony was riddled with inconsistencies, including how long the encounter lasted. She also disputed how she could have resisted arrest after being shot.
In late September, a federal jury awarded Allen $3.2 million, concluding the officers' actions were unreasonable and excessive.
The city asked Judge Synder to grant a new trial and judgment, claims that Houlihan's use of deadly force was reasonable.
But Synder said the jury "was free to reject" the contention that Houlihan feared Allen might seriously injure Phan with the wooden stake.
The judge noted that Allen was "half-naked, yelling and generally exhibiting unusual behavior" but that before the officers encountered her "at most she was guilty of disturbing the peace."
"Defendant did not contend, nor could he given her state of undress, that plaintiff was armed in any way other than with this wooden stake, and the evidence at trial showed that Officer Phan suffered minimal injuries as a result of plaintiff's efforts. This is not to say that plaintiff posed no threat to the officers' safety or that of others, but that on balance, a jury could find that plaintiff did not pose the type of threat that reasonably justified the use of deadly force," the judge ruled.
He found that Houlihan was not entitled to qualified immunity, and that his actions violated Allen's Fourth Amendment rights.
Snyder also found Bezak's Tasering of Allen excessive.
"Taken as a whole, the court is unable to conclude that the jury's verdict is against the clear weight of the evidence or that defendant's actions, taken in the light most favorable to plaintiff, were not in violation of plaintiff's constitutional rights. Plaintiff's right - lying on the ground suffering from three gunshot wounds - to be free from additional forceful intrusion by the police outweighs the government's interest under the totality of these particular circumstances," Snyder wrote.
The Police Department asked the court to grant a new trial based on the contributory negligence of an orthopedic surgeon who the city said caused Allen further injury after the shooting.
But Synder rejected that argument, saying that alleged inconsistencies in the jury verdicts did not merit a new trial. Snyder found that the damages awarded to Allen were reasonable.
The court granted in part and denied in part Allen's motion for attorneys' fees.
The city did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.