Video Helps Officers Win Excessive Force Suit
Lamar McCarthy v. City of Hartford et al.: A federal jury recently sided with three Hartford police officers who were accused of using excessive force when arresting a man who had led them on a high-speed chase.
According to police, on August 1, 2008 at 3:45 a.m., Lamont "Lamar" McCarthy, 32, of Hartford, was spotted running a red light at the intersection of Albany Avenue and Vine Street. Hartford detective Anthony Pia pulled over McCarthy and was about to get out of his police cruiser when McCarthy sped off. That started a high-speed chase that wound up on Windsor Avenue where McCarthy crashed his car. The vehicle belonged to his ex-girlfriend who had not given him permission to drive it that night.
Police claim they later recovered a gun and a ski mask in McCarthy's vehicle.
A lawyer representing the Hartford police officers, Alan Dembiczak, of Howd & Ludorf, in Hartford, said that at one point during the chase, Pia lost sight of McCarthy's car, but he turned down Windsor Avenue on a hunch and spotted McCarthy's crashed vehicle. McCarthy then ran off, and a new chase began, this one on foot. A tow truck happened to drive by; McCarthy attempted to get in the passenger side door but was unsuccessful.
At that point, Pia caught up with him again. The detective tried using mace to subdue McCarthy but the wind blew much of the spray into Pia's eyes, Dembiczak said.
Next, McCarthy ran back towards the police cruiser. Pia claims McCarthy tried to smash out a window and steal the cruiser. Meanwhile, the suspect claims he simply ran into the window and fell.
Another struggle ensued. Oddly enough, the tow truck slowly drove by again. McCarthy once again tried to hop on the truck and get inside. As Pia tried to stop him, the passenger door swung open and struck the detective in the face, causing him to fall to the ground.
By this time, two other officers arrived to the scene — Steven Citta and Jay Szepanski. They were able to pull McCarthy away from the tow truck and arrest him. "It took three or four officers to get him into handcuffs," said Dembiczak.
Detective Pia suffered some bumps and bruises but was otherwise OK, Dembiczak noted.
McCarthy was charged with a slew of crimes, including intent to commit a carjacking, reckless endangerment, assault on a police officer, reckless driving and illegal firearms possession. He also faced numerous traffic infractions. McCarthy later pled guilty to charges that included criminal possession of a revolver and was sentenced to 42 months in jail.
While in prison, McCarthy filed a civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Connecticut, claiming that the three officers used excessive force. "He claimed they just beat the crap out of him," said Dembiczak. "They were punching him, kicking him and all this other stuff."
Dembiczak said hospital records for McCarthy did not contain any evidence of injuries consistent with being punched or kicked by the police officers. Dembiczak argued to the jury during a one-day trial this summer that all of the force used on McCarthy was reasonable, and that any escalation in force was justified by McCarthy's continued resistance to arrest.
"They did everything they could to get this guy in custody," said Dembiczak. "Pia even testified that at one point in time he was scared for his life. It was a dead-street in the middle of the night with no one around. If [McCarthy] had gotten this officer's gun it would've been all over."
McCarthy, who represented himself initially, testified that he ran from police but was not fighting with the officers. McCarthy later agreed to let a court-appointed lawyer represent him at the trial. Jim Nugent, of Nugent & Bryant in New Haven, said he took the case pro bono about four weeks before the start of trial.
The case went to trial for one day in U.S. District Court in Bridgeport before Judge Donald Walter from Louisiana, who was filling in on the Connecticut bench.
Both lawyers said the case ultimately came down to a video of the struggle between the officers and McCarthy that was caught by the cruiser's camera. Nugent said the footage sunk his client's case "like a torpedo."
"Just about 95 percent of the entire incident was caught on the police dash-cam which unfortunately refuted most of the plaintiff's testimony," said Nugent.
The jury deliberated for about 45 minutes before returning with a defense verdict. "I think the video was powerful with the jury," said Dembiczak. "It paints a picture of what was going on. You see the desperation with which [McCarthy] is trying to get away from these police officers."
At the trial, Dembiczak noted that McCarthy had completed his jail sentence and was living at a halfway house.•