Reprinted with permission, Connecticut Law Tribune"
Monday, January 9, 2012
East Haven Accuser Quietly Exits, Stage Left
Last month, I mentioned that locals I met view the allegations of “racial profiling” and other abuses by East Haven police officers against Latinos as politically motivated and suspect. The ink wasn’t dry on that column when one of the plaintiff-accusers in Chacon v. East Haven Police Department managed to validate their assessment.
On Dec. 12, 2011, plaintiff Yadanny Garcia unilaterally moved to dismiss all of his claims against East Haven police officers. Filed by his counsel, David N. Rosen, the motion was curiously bald. Rosen merely represented to the court that Garcia chose to abandon his claims, but notably added the dismissal should be “with prejudice.”
Wait a minute, I thought. A plaintiff in a media-soaked bias case, represented by a lawyer who unabashedly claims the ability to maximize damage awards, just figured he’s got better things to do? I practiced law too long not to recognize this as flagging the existence of an undisclosed back story. Sure enough, the backdrop was provided in subsequent objections to Garcia’s motion, filed by the town and the accused officers.
Underscoring the significance of this are Garcia’s allegations, set forth in a complaint freighted with melodrama and broad histrionic sweeps against the whole police department. There are chapters describing the plaintiffs’ alleged experiences with police officers cast as lawless, bigoted, brutes, each chapter introduced by a theatrical headline.
Garcia sued four officers, the whole department, its chief and the town itself in connection with a single incident on Aug. 8, 2009. Garcia claimed he was a passenger in a car driven by a cousin, that the two stopped at an East Haven bar to use the bathroom, and that upon exiting, he was accosted by four officers, tased three times, punched, called a “f---ing Ecuadorian,” and subjected to a “phantom arrest.” End of story.
As Garcia would have us believe, he had done absolutely nothing wrong, was minding his own business, and was selected for police abuse because of his “race” and “ethnicity.” (Since Latinos are white, the reference to “race” is inaccurate, as is the suggestion that officers know one’s ethnicity by looking at them).
That story alone strikes me as implausible, and recent filings flesh it out. The defendants assert that Garcia withdrew his claims because they “are demonstrably false” and he has no credibility. What actually occurred, they say, “is that [Garcia] was intoxicated and was operating a [car] registered in his name …when he came upon a sobriety checkpoint that had been previously advertised in the New Haven Register.” He reportedly tried to evade the DUI checkpoint by shifting his car in reverse and driving backwards over a curb, nearly striking the driver behind him.
Officers gave chase, eventually finding Garcia hiding behind brush in a parking lot. He had abandoned his car and fleeing on foot, leaving behind his keys and cell phone. Garcia also reportedly lied about whether he had been drinking. He first denied it, then admitted having a few beers. He failed a horizontal gaze test, and then refused to take a breathalyzer after being warned in writing that refusal would result in a license suspension. Garcia was charged with DWI, unsafe backing, and interfering with police. Some “phantom arrest,” huh?
Seeking to avoid suspension, Garcia testified at a DMV hearing that his cousin was the driver. His testimony in other respects varies from his complaint (for example, he claims “two or three” cops came at him, not four, and mentions one tase, not three). Apart from Garcia’s ipse dixit, there isn’t a shred of evidence to support the “my cousin the driver” claim. The hearing officer did not find Garcia credible, concluded he was the driver (of his own car), and suspended his license.
The East Haven officers object to Garcia’s motion because it fails to dismiss all defendants sued based on Garcia’s claims. The town goes further, demanding that Garcia be sanctioned for filing patently meritless allegations that Garcia and his lawyers allowed to “sit in the public sphere for over an entire year,” while they garnered mass media attention and cast the officers and the town in a “terrible light.”
Worse, the town notes, the plaintiffs and their lawyers “added sensational charges that the officers’ conduct was based on the plaintiffs’ race and ethnicity, a libelous claim that would be actionable were it not cloaked with the immunity of the litigation privilege.”
East Haven has been hammered by the media, which has all but declared the Chacon plaintiffs proven victims. The Obama Justice Department has launched a corresponding assault on the town, attempting to goad it into voluntarily ceding the management of the police department over to a federal judge. Could it be that the DOJ hopes East Haven will roll over, lest the DOJ actually have to prove its case – and prove it with what, witnesses like Yadanny Garcia?
Worse, the media suggests, a grand jury will soon indict numerous officers based on the very sort of claims made in the Chacon case. On what evidence will law enforcement officers face criminal prosecution? The stories told by those they arrest, like Yadanny Garcia? That is truly scary.
Recently, DOJ officials flew in from Washington, D.C., and, before a gaggle of invited reporters, publicly defamed the East Haven Police Department, notwithstanding ongoing grand jury proceedings. What did they know about Yadanny Garcia and when did they know it?
At minimum, this cautions all to pause and decline to throw stones until these allegations are put to the test of cross-examination and adversary process. •
Karen Lee Torre, a New Haven trial lawyer, litigates civil rights issues in the federal courts. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.