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Over $6 Million Awarded in Oakland, California Parolee’s False Arrest Suit

by John E. Dannenberg

A federal jury awarded $6,058,000 in damages to a parolee and his girlfriend for outrageous conduct by Oakland, California city police (OPD) when they broke into his residence, told him they had a non-existent warrant, falsely claimed they found a firearm, and caused him to be wrongfully incarcerated for 4 1/2 months as a result. The damage award was later reduced by almost half, but still represents an impressive outcome.

Torry Smith, 22, and his girlfriend Patricia Gray lived in a rented residence in Oakland. Smith was a California Youth Authority parolee who had never violated any of his conditions of parole, including anger management counseling and drug testing. He was due to receive a bi-weekly visit from his parole agent at his residence on September 10, 2004. While Smith was getting dressed to meet his agent, an OPD officer knocked on the front door. A short time later, two other OPD officers kicked in the back door.

The officers questioned Smith about Marcus Belton, a purported drug lord who was under investigation. The OPD officers said Belton had been found with Smith’s bank card, driver’s license and social security card – items that Smith had previously reported as being lost or stolen. OPD officer Marcus Midyett falsely told Smith that a warrant had been issued for his arrest. When Smith, who did not know Belton, could not give the police the information they wanted, they arrested him and took him to jail.

Neither Smith nor Gray owned or possessed any firearms. However, Smith was later accused of having an assault rifle at the residence. OPD officers stated they had seen Smith walk out the back door of his residence, naked, holding the rifle in plain view of OPD officer John Parkinson. Smith and Gray denied they had an assault rifle and said it was planted by the officers to facilitate Smith’s false arrest.

Smith was booked on felony charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm and violating parole. The charges were dropped due to lack of evidence, refiled and dismissed again. His parole violation was also eventually dismissed, and he was released from custody in late January 2005.

Smith and Gray secured the services of renowned Oakland civil rights attorney John L. Burriss. Burriss filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging wrongful arrest, wrongful entry, wrongful detention, damage to the residence and emotional distress. Smith raised additional claims of false incarceration and loss of income. The lawsuit also sought statutory damages ($25,000 per incident) under California Civil Code §§ 51.7 and 52.1. Because the alleged acts by the OPD were malicious, wanton and oppressive, punitive damages were requested.

A federal jury returned verdicts against both of the OPD officers named in the suit, accepting the plaintiffs’ claim that the officers had planted the assault rifle. Smith was awarded $8,000 for loss of income, $5,000,000 for emotional distress and $50,000 in statutory damages. Gray was awarded $750,000 for emotional distress plus $50,000 in statutory damages. Additionally, punitive damages of $180,000 were awarded to Smith and $20,000 to Gray.

However, on March 17, 2008, the district court granted in part the defendants’ motion for a remittitur of the jury verdict. The court found that the $5 million awarded to Smith was “grossly excessive,” and the facts in the case, “while compelling, do not warrant such an extraordinary result.” Consequently, the court directed that it would grant a new trial on general damages unless Smith accepted a reduction of the award from $5 million to $3 million. The court also reduced the verdict for lost wages, from $8,000 to $1,800. Gray’s award for emotional distress was reduced to $300,000 from $750,000.

The total damage award after the remittitur was $3,601,800, which was accepted by Smith and Gray. The defendants have since appealed the verdict. See: Smith v. City of Oakland, 538 F.Supp.2d 1217 (N.D.Cal., 2008).

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Related legal case

Smith v. City of Oakland