No Punitive Damages for Improper Seizure of Kids

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A family who won more than $3 million from police for taking their children without a warrant must settle for the $210,000 awarded in a second trial, the Ninth Circuit ruled Tuesday.
     The situation erupted after a teacher called the Santa Clara County Department of Family and Children’s Services in May 2005 about an 8-year-old in her class.
     With the teacher believing that the girl, described in the court record only as O, may have been sexually abused, social workers failed for a month to make contract with O’s parents, Tracy Watson and Renee Stalker, or visit the family’s home.
     One June 29, seven officers with the San Jose Police Department arrived at the family’s home without a warrant.
     Neither O nor her parents were home, while a grandmother watched the other children, a 3-year-old with autism identified as S and a 1-year-old identified as R.
     Sgt. Craig Blank spoke with Watson on the phone about where police could interview O, but Watson did not bring O to the house.
     The officers in turn removed S and R from the home, again without a warrant.
     Police interviewed O the next day. She denied allegations that she was being abused by her father or anyone else, but the officers took her into custody as well.
     Several days later, a judge ruled that the children should not be returned to their home. They were not returned to their parents until November 2006, nearly a year and a half later.
     The family sued the city, police, county, school district and several officials in 2007. They settled with the county and school officials for an undisclosed amount.
     By the time the case went to trial in 2011, only the city, Blank and Detective William Hoyt, the officer who had been assigned the case, remained as defendants.
     A federal jury found that Hoyt and Blank were unjustified in entering the home and taking the kids, and had violated the family’s right against unreasonable search and seizure and the right to due process.
     The jury awarded the family a total of $1.25 million in compensatory damages, plus punitive damages of $2 million, one of the largest jury awards in San Jose in recent history.
     Meanwhile the judge who presided over the case ordered a new trial on damages, finding that the jury had either misunderstood or ignored instructions. In 2012 a second jury awarded the family $210,000 in damages.
     The Ninth Circuit agreed Tuesday that the original multimillion-dollar award did not reflect the actual injury suffered by the parents, since the 17-month separation of their children that followed their removal would have occurred anyway.
     “The juvenile court entered its order stating that the removal of the children was necessary for their welfare on July 5, 2005, less than a week after the children were removed by defendants,” Judge Richard Clifton wrote for a three-person panel. “That order meant that the separation of the family was inevitable and could not be attributed to defendants, and plaintiffs did not refute that proposition. As a result, the emotional distress arising from the separation would have occurred regardless of the officers’ conduct.”
     San Jose City Attorney Rick Doyle said that the city is satisfied with the end result of the case.
     “It’s been years of litigation, so in many ways it’s a relief that it’s over,” Doyle said in an interview. “I think it’s a good result given the first trial wasn’t really the full story. The jury didn’t really get the complete picture, which is really the basis for the judge granting the new trial, at least on the damages issue.”
     In the grand scheme of things, the smaller jury award “is a fair result,” Doyle added.
     The appellate panel found that court instructions in the first trial may have permitted the jury to believe they were awarding damages for the fact that the children and parents were separated for 17 months, though police were not responsible for that.
     There was also “no error in the District Court’s analysis that the officers’ conduct, while reckless, did not rise to the level of reprehensibility that would justify” the $2 million punitive damages awarded in the first trial, Clifton said.
     The family’s attorney, Peter Johnson, did not return a request for comment.

%d bloggers like this: