In 2010, New Haven attorney David Rosen and a group of Yale Law School students brought the first legal action against the town of East Haven and its police officers for allegedly violating the rights of Latino residents. But that federal lawsuit was put on hold earlier last year, when criminal charges were brought against two officers.
Soon, the civil case could get back on track. On Monday, Oct. 21, both officers were convicted in federal court, and the clock started ticking on the plaintiffs, who have 21 business days to file a motion asking U.S. District Judge Janet Bond Arterton to allow the civil lawsuit to proceed. After that, both sides will have five days to submit to the court a list of what actions still need to be taken — such as motions, depositions and discovery — before the case can be brought to trial.
“The end of the criminal trial means the civil case is hopefully going to get started again,” said Rosen, who did not speculate on when a civil trial might start. He noted that when Arterton halted the civil proceedings after the two officers were indicted early last year, some depositions had been taken and some discovery materials reviewed. “Now, it’s time to go back and finish discovery and get this case to trial,” he said.
The convictions of Officers David Cari and Dennis Spaulding, who face up to 10 years in prison when sentenced, will undoubtedly strengthen Rosen’s civil claims. “We now know that a cross-section of impartial jurors have found the allegations of racial profiling and police misconduct to be backed up by the evidence,” he said.
Both officers were arrested in 2012 after a four-year probe was launched by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The investigation found that the officers routinely discriminated against Hispanic and Latino people. Following a jury trial before U.S. District Judge Alvin Thompson in Hartford, both men were found guilty as charged with conspiracy against civil rights, deprivation of civil rights for making arrests without probable cause.
They were also found guilty of writing a false report in the arrest of Rev. James Manship, who was videotaping the officers as they arrested a Latino man in a convenience store.
In a rare turn of events, two other officers who were also arrested in 2012 on similar charges agreed to testify against their colleagues. The jury also saw evidence of the officers returning to the convenience store to try and get the surveillance camera video from the store’s owner.
“This prosecution and the jury’s swift and unambiguous verdict should send a very strong message,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Deirdre M. Daly. “There is no place in law enforcement for anyone who abuses power or victimizes defenseless individuals.”
The criminal defense lawyers for the officers, Frank Riccio II and Alex Hernandez, questioned the credibility of government witnesses, maintained that any arrests of Latino residents were supported by probable cause, and denied that the officers engaged in racial profiling. “We are disappointed by the jury’s verdict,” Hernandez, of Pullman & Comley, said in a prepared statement. “We will carefully review the record and determine if there is a basis for relief on appeal.”
In the civil case, nine Latino residents have filed suit against the East Haven police department, the town of East Haven, former Police Chief Leonard Gallo and five police officers. New Haven attorney Hugh Keefe, who is representing four of the officers, did not return phone calls and emails seeking comment for this article.
The convictions of the officers were a somewhat rare event, according to several civil rights practitioners.
“It’s quite unusual for the government to even bring a criminal prosecution for civil rights violations like this against police,” said John Williams, a New Haven attorney who has handled discrimination complaints against police for 30 years. “The initial comments by [East Haven Mayor John Maturo Jr.] when the indictments were announced demonstrated that there had been a culture of not only tolerating, but encouraging police abuse of minorities for many years.”
After the officers were arrested, Maturo was asked what he would do for the local Latino community. He replied, “I might have tacos.”
The conviction of the East Haven officers comes less than a month after former Meriden Officer Evan Cossette was convicted for using unreasonable force against a handcuffed suspect and then lying about the incident in a report. Williams hopes that they episodes will cause municipal police forces to review their policies. “I hope these successful prosecutions will help to educate both local political leadership and the public as a whole,” said Williams, “that we all are damaged” by these incidents.
Attorney Josephine Miller has handled several civil rights lawsuits against police agencies. She said criminal prosecutions against police are rare, particularly because juries are often reluctant to find fault with their actions in the course of duty. “Juries tend to view the police as the ‘good guys,’” she said, “and as a result the conviction rate of police officers charged with crimes is much lower than the conviction rate for general population crimes.”
But this case was different. “There was videotape of the misconduct entered into evidence,” she said. “And police radio calls documented the unlawful intent of the officers.”
Miller added, in her opinion, that “independent evidence, as opposed to only testimonial evidence, was likely a strong reason for the verdict.”
As far as the pending civil suit goes, Miller expects the conviction of the officers will make the civil action “much easier” for the plaintiffs, since the standard of proof in a civil case is so much lower than in a criminal case.
“These convictions, coming on the heels of the conviction earlier this year of the Meriden police officer,” Miller said, “should be a wake-up call to law enforcement leadership that much more work needs to be done to ensure that the civil rights of the general population are safeguarded.”
Jon Schoenhorn, whose practice includes representing plaintiffs in claims against police officers for alleged assaults, has his doubts that the convictions will do much to change the culture of abuse in East Haven. Schoenhorn said he was recently at a seminar on police misconduct in Puerto Rico, when the discussion came up about criminal convictions of officers.
“I was just having a conversation about this, and some of my colleagues say the criminal prosecution of a few officers does not change the culture. The only way to change the culture is when the chief and commanders in charge are held liable,” Schoenhorn said. “It’s only then that the actions of their rank-and-file start to change.”
When an individual or small group of officers is found guilty of a crime, the general sense is, “Oh well, they got caught,” he said.
Assisting Rosen is a group of Yale Law School students from its Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization. “Being the lead counsel in this case means being carried along by the energy and smarts of that team,” Rosen said.
One of the law students, Temidayo Odusolu, said she was pleased with the verdict in the criminal case.
“It’s an important step in helping the Latino community in East Haven heal from the racial profiling they have experienced,” Odusolu said. “We have not had a chance to discuss the next steps with our clients, and therefore we can’t comment on strategy. But we can say that we intend to pursue the civil case, and we will be moving forward as planned.”•