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By reputation, East Texas is a place where time moves a little slower, people are a little friendlier — and if you believe the critics — the police are a little more brutal. The latter perception is why Curtis Stuckey and Tim Garrigan say they set up a law practice deep in the Piney Woods of Nacogdoches. Over the course of 20 years, the partners in Stuckey, Garrigan & Cassetter have become two of the region’s pre-eminent civil rights lawyers, focusing primarily on police abuse cases. The people that have come through their office include an elderly woman whose home allegedly was mistakenly raided by drug officers, the family of a mental patient who allegedly was shot by police, and a man who allegedly was beaten by a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper after the man refused to lie on the ground. “That’s probably why we’re here,” Garrigan says. “Here in East Texas, some but not all of the police officers are more likely to throw their weight around.” They’ve lost a lot of cases — as civil rights lawyers often do because of sovereign immunity laws that make it tough to successfully sue government officials. But they’ve won the respect of judges, opposing counsel and even a few police officers along the way. One of the unlikely people whom they’ve won over is Joe Evans, who was Nacogdoches County sheriff from 1984 to 2000. Evans counts the attorneys as friends, saying he learned while in office that it was better to first consult with the civil rights lawyers about some police policy issues rather than to face them in court later over the same matters. While Evans says police abuse is no worse in East Texas than anywhere else in the nation, he still believes Stuckey and Garrigan’s work serves a noble purpose: keeping cops honest. “I love to listen to these guys argue that there is police cover-up. It does happen in New York and California and East Texas. But there’s not widespread abuse in East Texas,” says Evans, who now works as a law enforcement consultant. “It does happen. But they [Stuckey and Garrigan] are the checks-and-balances system to make sure it doesn’t happen.” While Stuckey and Garrigan rarely seek publicity for their cases, sometimes they’ve gotten some unwanted attention anyway. “Once the [Ku Klux] Klan scheduled a rally because of a case Curt filed,” Garrigan says, recalling a 1994 case Stuckey filed on behalf of a man who was allegedly shot in the back by a DPS trooper. “But whoopdeedo,” Stuckey says, brushing aside attention of the white-robed group. Yet that KKK attention seems to serve as reinforcement for the reasons Stuckey and Garrigan practice civil rights law. “We only represent the good guys,” Stuckey says. An Unlikely Pair Stuckey and Garrigan are far from a matched set. Each has a different personality from the other, according to several lawyers who know them. Stuckey, 56, is a native of Indiana who nevertheless speaks with a bit of an East Texas drawl. He’s prone to using salty language and displays the sort of colorful swagger common among veteran litigators. Garrigan, 45, is a native of North Carolina who grew up in Ohio. He’s a bit more straight-laced than his partner, has dry wit and chooses his words carefully during an interview. Garrigan practices employment law, but still helps Stuckey with police abuse cases. Garrigan says he found his way to Stuckey’s office in a strip mall on Nacogdoches’ main drag after clerking for a couple of East Texas U.S. magistrate judges. “I thought I’d hang out with Curt here until I had to get a real job,” Garrigan says. “And that was 17 or 18 years ago.” Their colleagues describe Stuckey and Garrigan as bound by a single purpose, representing the powerless against the powerful. “Those two guys are adamant defenders of the [U.S.] Constitution,” says John Heath Jr., a Nacogdoches criminal-defense lawyer. “They are true American heroes, because they have taken up the most unpopular cause outside of criminal defense.” Their work is not easy, says Tyler U.S. District Judge John Hannah, who sees both often when he travels to Lufkin to call a monthly docket in the Piney Woods. “It’s a hard way to make a living, quite frankly,” Hannah says of Stuckey and Garrigan’s practice. Hannah says police-defendants usually start out ahead with juries in East Texas. One reason that may be especially true in East Texas is because law enforcement is a large employer in the region because of the prisons in the area, Garrigan says. It’s not uncommon for many prospective jurors in the area to have family members who work for local police, sheriff departments or as prison guards. “And there’s no doubt there are people who identify with law enforcement,” Garrigan says. “And there’s nothing wrong with that. But people want something done about rogue police officers.” Even though Stuckey’s and Garrigan’s names are not associated with big damage awards, their service is important in East Texas, Heath says. “From a business model, if they were just in it for money, there are better ways to run a business,” Heath says. “The community is better off because of them, even though they are often a thorn in the side of the state.” Defense Admiration Two civil defense lawyers say there are two things opposing lawyers should expect from Stuckey and Garrigan — an honest representation of a case and a willingness to go to trial. Bill Helfand, a partner in Houston’s Magenheim, Bateman & Helfand who has defended city and county officials in alleged police abuse cases, enjoys facing off against Stuckey and Garrigan. Helfand recalls a case from a few years ago in which he defended the Lufkin Police Department in an alleged abuse of force case in which a K9 police dog allegedly attacked Stuckey’s client. Stuckey’s client allegedly was trying to stop another man from assaulting a woman; Stuckey’s client began wrestling with that man, Helfand says. Then police showed up, and the police dog bit Stuckey’s client, Helfand says. Stuckey alleges that the police wrongly sicced the dog on his client. Helfand disagrees. “I kept telling Curtis that the dog is my best witness and that the dog is supposed to attack the most violent person at the moment. We tried that case and won it,” Helfand says of his victory. Because Stuckey and Garrigan have no hesitation about going to trial, that puts them in a position of strength, Helfand says. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen in a trial. And the thing about civil rights’ violations, I can tell [clients] that you haven’t done anything wrong constitutionally,” Helfand says. “But the jury might get mad. And if they get mad, you’re not going to have a small damage award.” Stuckey and Garrigan agree with that assessment and say that 95 percent of their cases settle. “That’s the only way to keep them honest,” Stuckey says of his willingness to take police agencies to trial. Stuckey’s colorful personality comes out quickly at trial, says Robert Davis of Tyler’s Flowers & Davis, who has defended county officials in cases Stuckey has filed. Stuckey always introduces himself to juries by saying “My name is Curtis Stuckey, and I have the high honor of representing” and then names his client, Davis says — even if the client is a convicted felon. “I try to let them know that I’m proud to be there,” Stuckey says. “And it is a high honor.” But Stuckey sometimes takes things a bit too far with jurors, says one defense attorney who did not want to be identified. During jury selection, if Stuckey disagrees with a juror’s feelings about police officials, he’ll let the potential juror know that, the lawyer says. “I’m sure I piss jurors off sometimes,” Stuckey says. “But I don’t do it on purpose.” Occasionally, Stuckey’s cases even rile the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A good example is 1996′s Dunn v. Denk, an excessive force case in which a woman alleged a DPS trooper needlessly threw her to the ground after arresting her for an outstanding traffic warrant. Stuckey won the case at trial, getting $10,000 in punitive damages for the woman. But in an en banc decision, the 5th Circuit reversed the case, ruling that at the time of the woman’s arrest, the law was unclear as to whether a plaintiff could recover for injury for allegedly unnecessary force if the plaintiff could show “significant physical injury.” The court ultimately found that the officer had qualified immunity from liability. That decision sparked an animated dissent by Judge Thomas Reavley, who was outraged at the reversal. “Without the slightest justification beyond an arrest warrant for a traffic offense, a Texas patrolman injured a woman by pulling her out of her car, putting her face down into a ditch, kneeling on top of her and handcuffing her arms behind her,” Reavley wrote in the dissent. “This court now holds that the patrolman is immune from liability for his violation of her rights. In the 1990s! In the 5th Circuit! I dissent.” Stuckey says he believed in his client’s case, perhaps as strongly as Reavley felt about his dissent. “I don’t like it when powerful people abuse the powerless because it’s not fair,” Stuckey says. “I admire people [who] when asked to jump don’t ask ‘How high?’ but ‘Why?’ “

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