Awards damages but finds against excessive force claim
March 31, 2014 11:12 PM
Jordan Miles listens as his attorney Joel Sansone talks about Monday’s verdict.
Attorney Joel Sansone speaks about the verdict in the civil trial involving the arrest of his client, Jordan Miles, left.
Attorneys for the three current and former Pittsburgh Police officers in the Jordan Miles civil trial outside the Federal Courthouse after the jury verdict. From left: James Wymard, Robert Leight and Bryan Campbell.
By Rich Lord and Liz Navratil / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A split verdict Monday in which a jury awarded Jordan Miles more than $119,000 for a false arrest in 2010 but found against a claim of excessive force, isn't likely to end federal court sparring over the case, nor to bridge the police-community divide.
"I don't think it's likely to satisfy anyone," said David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who managed a police-community roundtable effort that grew from the case. The verdict "does not supply a kind of clean resolution going either way, and so both sides will proceed from here as if they did not get what they thought they were entitled to."
Mr. Miles, 22, of Homewood called the civil verdict "a victory. ... The jurors found the police officers to be guilty, at least in one aspect, and that's all I really needed."
Attorneys discuss verdict in Jordan Miles case
Attorneys for Jordan Miles and those representing three police officers accused in a civil suit of false arrest and use of excessive force discussed a mixed verdict returned today by the jury. (Video by Bob Donaldson; 3/31/2014)
"We may not agree with everything, but it's good to know, so I can try to put this behind myself and try to go back to school," said Mr. Miles, now a shift manager at CVS Pharmacy.
"It's not over," he added. "It's not over until God says it's over."
Police Officers Richard Ewing, Michael Saldutte and David Sisak, each of whom was assessed $6,000 in punitive damages on top of an overall award of $101,016 for compensatory damages, left the U.S. Courthouse without a word. The city is required by contract to indemnify them for verdicts related to their job duties.
Their attorneys seemed puzzled by the outcome.
"These are three fine police officers, and you have got to wonder what message this sends to the police department," said attorney Robert Leight, who represented Officer Ewing, formerly of Pittsburgh and now working for McCandless. He added later, "Knowing these three officers -- and we've talked about it -- they'd do it all over again. They did nothing wrong. They have nothing to be ashamed of."
The verdict came more than four years after Mr. Miles, on the way from his mother's on Tioga Street in Homewood to his grandmother's house a block away, encountered the three plainclothes officers who were driving an unmarked car. Nearly everything about the following three minutes was disputed.
The officers said they went by the book, identified themselves as police, asked Mr. Miles questions and chased him when he ran. They said a bulge in his pocket made them think he had a gun. They said he elbowed Officer Saldutte and kicked Officer Sisak, so they used the necessary force to get him handcuffed.
Mr. Miles said the officers did not say they were police, demanded of him money, drugs and guns, and beat him before and after he was handcuffed. His persona as a viola-playing student at Pittsburgh's Creative and Performing Arts high school, and the photos of his bloated face, made the case Exhibit A for police-community tension.
Because Mr. Miles is black and the officers white, the case also had racial overtones.
The all-white jury heard three weeks of testimony, then deliberated for a day and a half before coming to its verdict. Jurors left the courthouse without comment, and those who could be reached Monday declined comment.
The verdict is "unusual and it is a little puzzling at first glance, because you would think if the arrest was false any force might be excessive," said Mr. Harris. "I could see either side appealing this."
"I cannot explain the jury's failure to find excessive force," said attorney Joel Sansone, who represented Mr. Miles. "It remains a mystery, and until I am able to speak with [jurors] it will remain a mystery."
Attorney Bryan Campbell, who represented Officer Saldutte, expressed similar puzzlement.
Mr. Leight speculated that it may have been a "sympathy" verdict. "The jury felt bad for Jordan Miles," he said.
The compensatory damages amounted to the total of the medical bills placed into evidence by Mr. Miles -- $41,016.75 -- plus $60,000. It's unclear why the jurors added that amount, nor why they settled on $6,000 per officer for punitive damages.
"A six-figure verdict, while it may not seem much to some, is a lot of money, and it's a lot of money for people to award against police officers who said they didn't do anything wrong," said Mr. Sansone.
Tim Stevens, chairman of Black Political Empowerment Project, who attended much of the trial, said of the verdict, "I'm sure we'd like from the community side to see [the amount] be larger, to send a clearer signal."
"Monetarily this is a win for the officers and for the city of Pittsburgh," said attorney James Wymard, who represented Officer Sisak.
"I wouldn't have said that if I were them," said Mr. Sansone.
The history of the case suggests that the city's ultimate payout will be a matter of further litigation.
In 2011, the city offered Mr. Miles $180,000 to settle the case. Under federal rules, if a defendant makes an offer that is rejected, and a jury later awards less than that amount, the plaintiff's attorney can't demand payment of costs and fees by the defendant.
The defense attorneys think that may preclude Mr. Miles' attorneys from collecting for their time and expenses. Mr. Sansone, though, noted that the offer came before the first of two trials in the case, and was only related to the city, not the officers.
He said that he, Michigan attorney Robert Giroux and Mr. Miles' former attorneys, J. Kerrington Lewis and Timothy O'Brien, intend to demand "a very large attorney fee award."
Mr. Sansone called on the city to fire Officers Saldutte and Sisak, who remain with the bureau.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto issued a statement saying the "community must start healing, and must start rebuilding the trust we must have for safe communities and a better police force.
"I am ready to start that now," he said in the statement, without saying how.
Mr. Sansone also asked that U.S. Attorney David Hickton reopen the federal criminal investigation of the officers, which was closed without charges being filed in 2011.
Would a federal prosecutor reopen a criminal probe because of a civil verdict?
"I think it's very unlikely, because the standard of proof in a criminal trial on the federal side is very high," said Mr. Harris.
Rich Lord: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1542. Twitter @richelord. Liz Navratil: email@example.com, 412-263-1438. Twitter @LizNavratil. First Published March 31, 2014 12:35 PM