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Santa Ana Settles Lawsuit Claiming Jail Beating : Courts: Man who said he was assaulted in city jail in 1992 receives $200,000. City denies any wrongdoing but agrees to payment to avoid possible higher jury award.

October 04, 1994|LEE ROMNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — The City Council has authorized a $200,000 settlement in the case of a man who alleged that he was beaten by police in a city jail cell two years ago and spent 10 months in a coma.

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Benjamin Salinas, 46, was arrested by Santa Ana police officers for public drunkenness and outstanding warrants in March, 1992, after he was found lying on a Sullivan Street sidewalk.

According to court documents, the Orange County Jail would not take Salinas because he was too drunk to be held there. However, he was "conscious, responsive and uninjured" shortly after his arrest, court documents said.

By early the next morning, an officer who checked on Salinas in his holding cell at the Santa Ana Police Department noticed that his lips were pale and saw blood in his mouth. Salinas was then taken to Western Medical Center-Santa Ana and was diagnosed with a brain injury, court documents said.

The lawsuit alleged that Salinas was severely beaten while in custody, remained in a coma for 10 months, and still suffers from poor memory and motor function, incontinence, dizziness, pain in his arm and leg and bad sleep patterns.

But city officials say there was no evidence that Salinas was beaten while in jail, whether by police or by other inmates in his cell.

The city settled the case in order to avoid a possible higher award that jurors might have imposed if they felt the city should have sought medical care for Salinas sooner, said Assistant City Atty. Robert Wheeler.

"There was absolutely no evidence that he was beaten by any police officer or any other individual for that matter," Wheeler said. "The city categorically denies any such allegation. We had a highly intoxicated individual who did not know where he lived, who had outstanding warrants on him. We monitored him throughout the night. When we checked on him in the morning, his physical condition had changed."

Wheeler said officers noticed a small abrasion on the back of Salinas' head and a spot of blood on the sidewalk when they arrested him. But when he was roused, he was semi-coherent, the blood in his hair had already begun to dry, and officers who checked on him throughout the night were able to wake him, Wheeler said.

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He said officers believed that Salinas was merely intoxicated and that his wound was superficial, but that he must have suffered an injury "while he was on the street."

"Obviously it's a very fair settlement to the city. A jury verdict could have been much higher," Wheeler said.

Salinas' attorney, Randall H. Scarlett, who worked for the San Francisco law firm of Melvin Belli when he was retained, could not be reached for comment Monday.

The lawsuit was filed in Orange County Superior Court in March, 1993, and named the city, the Santa Ana Police Department and the Orange County Sheriff's Department as defendants. It alleged that the defendants "brutally and physically assaulted (Salinas) during the period of time he was in custody."

Scarlett agreed to drop the Sheriff's Department from the suit earlier this year because Salinas was never booked into the Orange County Jail, an attorney for that agency said.

Scarlett had asked the Santa Ana Police Department to produce internal affairs documents on Salinas' arrest. Those documents contained interviews with four police personnel and statements of eight police officers.

Salinas' attorney also sought any internal affairs documents that detailed disciplinary actions against five police officers who had been in contact with Salinas on the night of his arrest and incarceration.

The city had argued that releasing those documents would compromise the Police Department.

Wheeler said that because city officials felt there was no evidence that officers had beaten Salinas, they resisted opening the internal affairs files to the courts for scrutiny.

The case had been set for trial Monday in Orange County Superior Court, , but attorneys notified the court of a settlement last week.

In closed session at its Sept. 19 meeting, the City Council authorized the $200,000 settlement in the case.

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