The City of Palo Alto could have to pay as much as $500,000 after the California Supreme Court Wednesday refused to hear its appeal on a decade-old police excessive force case.
In 2003, a Santa Clara County jury found that Palo Alto police used excessive force when arresting Michael Schmidlin, now 46, in March 1997.
Last December, an appeals court ruled in favor of Schmidlin and the city appealed to the state Supreme Court. The court decided not to hear the case Wednesday, allowing the appellate ruling to stand.
"I'd be lying if I said we weren't disappointed," Assistant City Attorney Don Larkin said Thursday. The city realized the court didn't accept many cases, but had hoped its argument -- that Schmidlin filed his lawsuit too late and the original trial judge provided incomplete instructions to the jury -- would prevail, Larkin said.
But for Schmidlin's Palo Alto-based attorney, Mark Martel, the court's decision not to hear the case was a major victory.
"What's such a big deal is this guy did nothing wrong. He's beaten up and charged with crimes and he has to defend himself," Martel said. "It's taken him 11 years to vindicate himself. That's a lot of work and a lot of time."
"It's hard to fight City Hall. City Hall can fight back with all the taxpayers' money," Martel said.
The prolonged legal battle stems from Schmidlin's 1997 early-morning encounter with Palo Alto police near Lytton Plaza.
Schmidlin was approached by Palo Alto police officers Bertrand Milliken, Tim Martin and David Trujillo.
Officers said he appeared to be drunk and was asked for his identification, court records state. Schmidlin said he didn't have his ID and told officers his name was "Milo," the name of his dog.
Schmidlin said he was hit with a baton, thrown to the ground and beaten.
He was acquitted of being drunk in public and convicted of providing false information. although that was later dropped, Martel said.
Schmidlin sued the city for using excessive force several years later.
Schmidlin did not suffer lasting injuries, Martel said.
Martel said plaintiffs rarely win excessive-force cases against the police.
Larkin said the city appealed the issue to the state's Supreme Court because the trial judge did not inform jurors about the principle of qualified immunity, which protects officers if they could reasonably believe their actions were justified.
The city was also arguing the lawsuit was filed too late, Larkin said.
Next, Martel said he plans to file a motion in Santa Clara County Superior Court to recoup attorney's fees, which could top $500,000.
Larkin said he could not comment on the anticipated cost of the case.
"I'm sure they are going to be looking for a lot and I think we're going to have to pay more than we'd like," he said.
The three officers are no longer employed by the city, but they didn't leave because of the Schmidlin incident, Larkin said.