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Top court rules against PA on 'excessive force'

1997 'drunk in public' beating case could cost city up to $500,000

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.

Comments

Posted by Just Remembering, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 14, 2008 at 9:32 am

Between the Lee and Kan affair, and now this--the cost of the settlements, the outside attorneys, the inside attorneys, the lost time for all concerned has got to be $1.5 to $2.0M dollars of tax-payer funds.

Sadly, these numbers will not be found in the City's published documents about "service" and "quality of service"--they get hidden away and soon forgotten. It's doubtful that any City Council member would be remotely interested in talking about this issue in public--much to easy to say: "forget, it! Time to move on!"

Sad .. so sad ..


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 14, 2008 at 9:47 am

Neither of these Police Officers are presently employed by the PAPD. One retired long ago and the other has long since moved on to another jurisdiction.


Posted by Ask The Hard Questions First, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 14, 2008 at 10:22 am

> Neither of these Police Officers are presently employed
> by the PAPD. One retired long ago and the other has
> long since moved on to another jurisdiction.

And your point is?


Posted by Resident, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 14, 2008 at 4:28 pm

The Supreme Court is wrong on this one. Palo Alto shouldn't be paying this guy anything.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 14, 2008 at 4:32 pm

The Supreme Court is wrong on this one. Palo Alto shouldn't be paying this guy anything.


Posted by Hmmm, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 16, 2008 at 10:42 am

Hmmm, let's see..Schmidlin was at Lytton Plaza in the early morning hours, cops thought he was drunk in public, and when they asked him his name, he gave them his dog's name. So far, it seems pretty reasonable to think he was drunk. There are lots of drunken people at Lytton plaza in the early morning hours most weekends and telling a cop your dogs name doesn't sound like what most sober people do. The cops then try to arrest him (lie they do with scores of drunken people downtown late at night) and he resists. They overcome his resistance and take him to jail. Most people arrested for the same probably just learn from their mistake or figure it's not worth fighting in court because, after all, they were the bad guy in this one. But because Schmidlin has some money and time, he fights it. It takes a long time, but with money even guilty people can be found not guilty (remember OJ?)

Sigh, I guess the smart mouthed drunk guy hanging out at Lytton Plaza late at night is right and the cops are wrong (sarcasm intended.) I guess the taxpayers will foot the bill on this one. It must be hard to be a cop as it seems in one moment we the public are telling them clean up the streets, get rid of the drunk who urinate on my downtown business, catch that burglar in the Midtown area and the next were making them feel like if they use their Taser or man-handle the resisting drunk guy you may be sued.

Anyway, to provide some balance to this discussion I offer this. Thank you to cops in PA and elsewhere. Thanks for doing your part for civility and I promise to do my part by not being drunk at Lytton Plaza late at night, not telling you my dogs name when you ask for mine, and not resisting you if you have to arrest me. To Schmidlin I say after you're done paying your lawyer, use your profits to buy the PA cops a new police station. :)


Posted by Shop Downtown, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 18, 2008 at 12:32 pm

This ruling certainly doesn't help those who would like to see Victor Frost removed from Whole Foods Market under the sit/lie ordinance. In fact, it may make the PAPD reluctant to enforce any City code or State law involving the homeless anywhere Downtown, if they can sue the City and win that easily.






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