This week an appellate court upheld a jury verdict in the trial of a Florida man who sued the City of Boynton Beach after he was violently attacked by City police officers while in their custody following his arrest for DUI. Adam Weiss was at home late one night, when a neighbor asked him to assist him in locating his girlfriend. As Mr. Weiss drove around, he caught the eye of a City of Boynton Beach police officer, who suspected that Mr. Weiss was driving under the influence.
Mr. Weiss -- who has a history of emotional and psychotic disorders as well as drug dependency -- failed the field sobriety test and was arrested and taken to the police station, where he was placed in a holding cell. Within 45 minutes, he was screaming, banging, and kicking his cell door, asking for medication that he needed to control anxiety. After several visits by various officers to his cell, Mr. Weiss claimed that one of the officers, referred to as Officer One, grabbed his neck and threw him against the wall, causing him to hit his head against a metal seat. Before this event, Officer One had been twice been named Boynton's "Officer of the Month" -- but just a month earlier his evaluation noted that he had difficulty "controlling conflict."
Several officers responded and attempted to restrain Mr. Weiss and transport him to a hospital. During this altercation, which took place in the police station's garage, Mr. Weiss told the officers that he wanted to bite them to give them Hepatitis C. Mr. Weiss was not easily restrained and continued to kick and scream at officers -- requiring them to Taser him several times in the "drive stun" mode.
The entire incident was captured on the holding cell's video surveillance system, and photos taken after the attack showed burn marks and bruises. Boynton's Police Chief Jeffrey Katz reviewed the tape and fired Officer One for violating the department's policies. Mr. Weiss then sued the City of Boynton Beach and three of its officers, including Officer One, for:
1. Negligent Retention and Supervision of Officer One;
2. Negligent failure to protect him;
3. Negligent infliction of emotional distress;
4. Battery committed by Officer One.
At trial, the judge did not allow the jury to hear evidence that Officer One was fired by Chief Katz. However, the jury did find that at the time of the attack, Officer One was acting within the course and scope of his employment and that the City was negligent for (1) retaining and supervising Officer One; (2) negligently failing to protect the plaintiff: (3) battery; and (4) inflicting emotional distress. The jury awarded Mr. Weiss $179,152.97.
The City appealed the verdict to Florida's 4th District Court of Appeal, based on a variety of technical legal issues, including that the City should not be responsible for negligently hiring and supervising Officer One if his actions were done within the course and scope of employment, and that the City should be insulated from the suit for the malicious acts of employees. The court agreed with the City, but since the Jury did not apportion its verdicts on the separate legal theories, the Appellate court could not overturn the verdict -- allowing Mr. Weiss to keep the entire $179,152.97 judgment.
Mr. Weiss' case comes on the heels of additional lawsuits against the Boyton Beach police. Last year, Sherif Kodsy, 47, claimed that he was mistreated and severely injured by Boyton Beach police after being arrested for passing a bad check. He is currently suing the City for $500 million, according his complaint filed in the Southern District of Florida's Federal Court in Miami. And according to the Palm Beach Post, Boynton Beach is also facing a lawsuit which alleges that two officers former officers acted with malice by holding Clifford Henfield, 39, against his will following his arrest.
As a civil rights lawyer in Florida, I hope these cases send a strong message to law enforcement personnel across our country, that they cannot escape liability for mistreating people in their custody.
Follow Spencer Aronfeld on Twitter: www.twitter.com/aronfeld