Court Reduces Award|for Baptism Gone Bad

     CHICAGO (CN) – The town of Cicero, Ill., and six police officers owe damages for their role in a violent brawl at a baptism being celebrated by nearly 100 people of Mexican descent, but the 23 partygoers cannot double recover from the defendants, the 7th Circuit ruled.
     Alejandro and Maria Duran hosted the party to celebrate their daughter’s baptism on Sept. 2, 2000.
     Two separate telephone complaints led to a visit by Officer Robert DeCianni. DeCianni quickly became “embroiled in a heated verbal exchange with partygoers who were celebrating outside the home” and called for backup.
     “Within several minutes, Cicero’s entire on-duty police force was present outside the Duran home, accompanied by members of neighboring police departments,” Judge Diana Sykes wrote for a three-judge panel.
     The officers then entered the property through the front gate, purportedly to arrest a man for throwing a beer bottle at Officer DeCianni.
     Officers used pepper spray, night sticks and physical force to subdue combative partygoers. Five officers were treated for bites and bruises, while 78 of the partygoers, adults as well as children, claimed they suffered injuries.
     Seven men were arrested, including brothers Alejandro Duran, Armando Duran, Adolfo Duran and Gonzalo Duran. The brothers were prosecuted on charges of battery and obstructing or resisting a peace officer. They were acquitted by a jury.
     The attendees filed suit against the officers alleging excessive force, deprivation of equal protection, and a host of state-law tort claims including battery, malicious prosecution and hate crimes. They also accused the town of Cicero of “maintaining a policy of indifference to the use of excessive force by its officers.”
     After a six-week trial, complicated by the number of parties on each side, a jury returned verdicts in favor of 23 plaintiffs against six individual officers and Cicero.
     But unclear jury instruction led to separate awards against both individual officers and the town, the 7th Circuit determined.
     At the trial’s opening, the town stipulated to respondeat superior liability for any torts committed by on-duty officers, named or unnamed.
     As a result, “the issue of the town’s liability should not have been submitted to the jury at all; once the town entered its stipulation on the scope-of-employment issue, its liability became solely a postverdict legal matter for the court.”
     The court ruled that a single award of damages per plaintiff, ultimately paid for by the town, should have been the result.
     “On remand the court should clarify that the damages the jury assessed against the town and the individual officers are not to be aggregated; the judgment should reflect that the town is jointly liable for a single damages award in favor of each plaintiff who prevailed on a state-law claim,” Sykes wrote.
     Additionally, the three-judge appellate panel addressed plaintiffs’ spoliation-of-evidence claims.
     Several plaintiffs had said officers confiscated a video camera belonging to the professional videographer hired to record the event. Video evidence of the officers’ brutality would have been recorded if the officers not taken Luis Castaneda’s camera, they alleged.
     But the 7th Circuit rejected this claim, writing that spoliation “occurs only when the duty to preserve existing evidence has been breached. … That [police] interrupted Castaneda’s filming is not evidence of spoliation; Illinois does not recognize a spoliation claim based on evidence not yet in existence.”
     Because the videotape was returned unaltered, not claim for spoliation existed.
     The court did uphold the jury’s ruling on another spoliation claim, however, which was based on officers’ confiscation and failure to return a next-door neighbor’s camera.
     Even with the reductions, the award will likely cost the town of Cicero over $2 million.

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