Old Man Beat Up by CHP Officers Wins Case

           SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – A federal judge has upheld a verdict in favor of a 78-year-old who was disabled by a stroke and had been a model citizen until he was stopped by two young California Highway Patrol officers for driving five miles under the speed limit. In the course of arresting the disabled man, one officer punched him in the gut, knocked him to the ground and then falsely accused him of resisting arrest.
     “The verdict was vindication of the obvious fact that, however they were trained, there was no need for a CHP officer to punch a harmless, disabled senior citizen,” said attorney Michael Haddad on behalf of client, Harrison Orr.
     Orr sued California, its highway patrol, and CHP officers Jay Brame and Terry Plumb, seeking over a 2013 traffic stop. He was 76 at the time.
     Suffering from slurred speech and balancing problems due to a stroke, Orr was pulled over because he was driving too slow. Although Orr told officers that he did not drink or use drugs, and that a stroke had left him with slurred speech and unable to balance well, the officers subjected him to two field sobriety tests.
     A breathalyzer test then confirmed that Orr had not had any alcohol. But the officers decided to arrest him anyway, saying he might be on drugs. Orr initially cooperated with the arrest, but objected when the officers wanted to handcuff him, citing his balance problems. In an attempt to handcuff Orr, the two CHP officers grabbed him from either side and Plumb punched him in the stomach, knocking hime to the ground.
     Orr was taken to the CHP office where another official determined that his slurred speech and balance problems were due to a medical condition and not drug use. But the CHP accused him anyway of resisting arrest. The local district attorney then decided not to prosecute because there was no evidence of resisting arrest or any other crime.
     Following a 10-day trial, a federal jury returned a unanimous verdict against Plumb for his use of excessive force and his false accusation. They awarded Orr $125, 000.
     Remarkably, the California Attorney General Kamala Harris and her office staff refused to accept the jury findings. Prosecutor Krista Jean Dunzweiler, in the office led by Harris, asked a federal judge to overturn the verdict.
     U.S. District Court Judge William Shubb in the Eastern District declined, finding instead that there was “ample evidence to support the jury’s verdict.”
     “First, the ‘crimes’ at issue could hardly have been more minor,” wrote the judge. “Plaintiff’s only crime consisted of driving five miles per hour slower than the recommended speed on a dangerous curve and making what Officer Brame opined as an unsafe lane change. Although the officers also suspected plaintiff of being under the influence of some unspecified drug, he was not.”
     There was also no evidence to suggest that Orr posed any actual threat to the officers’ safety, Shubb said.
     “Plaintiff was a 76-year-old disabled man confronted by two young officers. He had been a ‘model citizen’ up to the point that he refused to be handcuffed. He was well dressed in what appeared to be golf clothes and demonstrated none of the behavior of a dangerous criminal,” Shubb wrote.
     Although Plumb testified that right before he punched Orr, the elderly man raised his arms with his hands balled up in fists on either side of his face, Brame testified that he saw no such thing.
     Even assuming Plumb’s testimony was true, the jury “was entitled to find that – far from providing justification for the so-called ‘distraction blow’ — plaintiff’s gesture was more reasonably interpreted as one of submission, which would have made it easier rather than harder to place the handcuffs on plaintiff without punching him,” Shubb wrote.
     An expert testified that the officers had alternative methods of taking Orr into custody. They could have just taken Orr to the ground and handcuffed them as they did, minus the initial punch, the judge said.
     “Plumb’s use of a ‘distraction blow’ to get plaintiff to comply with the handcuffing, absent any conduct that could reasonably be interpreted as a threat to officer safety, was an unreasonable use of force,” he wrote.
     Simply labeling a punch to the stomach a “distraction blow” in department policy or on the witness stand “does not immunize an objectively unreasonable use of force from constitutional scrutiny,” he added.
     “Although the attorney general persists in attempting to defend it, neither the jury nor the court can find any justification for that blow,” the opinion continued.
     Plumb’s actions after the arrest indicate that he knew that he violated the law, the judge said, pointing out that the officer did not make a written report of the use of force as required by the CHP.
     “If he had truly believed he had done nothing wrong, it is difficult to understand why he did not properly report it,” Shubb wrote.
     The jury was also justified in finding that Plumb did not have probable cause to arrest Orr for resisting arrest, the judge said.
     “Because the jury found that Plumb used excessive force in making the arrest, they had no choice but to conclude that the arrest was unlawful,” he concluded.
     In addition to the $125,000 award, the state will also have to pay Orr’s attorneys their fees and expenses, amounts which have yet to be determined.
     The office of Attorney General Kamala Harris did not respond to a request for comment.

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