RAMONA, Calif. — The problems started seven years ago when Steve Grassilli called the local California Highway Patrol station to complain about the behavior of an officer.
Over the next five years, CHP officers repeatedly pulled Grassilli over, issuing more than 30 citations and impounding his truck.
This week, a jury in San Diego County found that officers had maliciously harassed Grassilli and then had tried to cover up their actions. The panel awarded him $4.5 million in damages.
"I believe [the officers] used power inappropriately and vindictively," said juror Austin Willett. "I feel this was a very serious case and a very serious problem. It was very eye-opening, in that I want to believe the law isn't misused."
The trial has raised eyebrows in Ramona because of what it revealed about the behavior of the CHP officers who patrol some routes there, both in dealing with Grassilli's original complaint and in their ensuing actions.
Five to six officers stationed at El Cajon routinely patrol in Ramona, which is nestled among reddish foothills covered with scraggly scrub and boulders. Grassilli lives in nearby Santa Ysabel and regularly drives through Ramona.
Two CHP officers testified that they were pressured by their superiors to lie under oath.
The jury ruled against two other CHP officers but not the department. As a result, those officers are liable for the judgment. A third officer was found liable as a supervisor but was not ordered to pay any damages. The CHP paid for the defense and expressed frustration at the jury's decision.
"I am extremely disappointed and amazed at this decision," CHP Commissioner D.O. "Spike" Helmick said in a statement. "I disagree entirely with it. We will look at every way humanly possible to appeal it."
Grassilli, a 44-year-old water-tank installer, said he felt vindicated.
"I feel like justice was done," he said. "All I wanted to do was get this straightened out."
The conflict began in 1997. A friend of Grassilli's had received a ticket from CHP Officer Richard Eric Barr for removing the catalytic converter from his vehicle in violation of state law. That angered Grassilli, because he had been told that Barr removed the converter from his own truck to give the motor more power for hauling his boat on a trailer.
Grassilli called the CHP office in El Cajon to complain.
That's when the harassment began, Grassilli's attorney said.
Barr and his supervisor, Sgt. Michael Paul Toth, pulled Grassilli over more than a dozen times in the next five years and issued multiple citations during most stops.
The officers also allegedly targeted vehicles belonging to one of Grassilli's suppliers, who shipped 12-foot-wide water tanks through Ramona.
The officers repeatedly issued tickets to the supplier for various reasons, including improper hauling of water tanks and mirrors they said were too small. The supplier eventually stopped doing business with Grassilli because of the harassment, said attorney Greg Garrison.
Barr also filed a complaint against Grassilli with the San Diego County district attorney, contending that he falsely accused the CHP officer of removing the catalytic converter. Prosecutors filed two misdemeanor counts of making false statements against Grassilli, but a judge threw the case out.
Grassilli filed his civil suit against Barr and Toth in 1999. It alleged that the officers had violated his civil rights and conspired against him. He sought $75,000 in damages.
In court, Barr and Toth denied any wrongdoing, saying that all their traffic stops were justified because they had seen violations.
But two other CHP officers testified that they had been told to ticket Grassilli and at one point conspired to get his truck impounded. They also said superiors pushed them to lie under oath to protect the department.
"I've been told by my supervisors not to associate with Mr. Grassilli or I could lose my resident post and be ordered to work back in the office, where they could keep an eye on me," said Officer Craig Thetford in a deposition.
During the spring trial, Thetford produced internal documents detailing the pressures he said superiors had put on him.
One transcript produced by Thetford quoted a CHP sergeant as expressing displeasure at his deposition.
"You're a member of the department and the department has an opinion. We do not," the sergeant is quoted as saying. "When in deposition, we go out of our way to never be construed in any other way than we want to be construed. We are experts in testimony."
A second officer, Michael Clauser, testified that he felt pressure by superiors to not contradict Barr.
The jury found Barr and Toth guilty of "malicious, wanton or oppressive behavior" against Grassilli. The panel ordered Barr to pay Grassilli $3 million and Toth to pay a little more than $1 million. Grassilli also was awarded $510,000 in compensatory damages.
Juror Willett said he was shocked by some allegations made against the CHP. Still, he said, it was important not to jump to conclusions.
"I don't believe this case should depict the Highway Patrol as a bad organization," he said. "There are good cops out there and I think that the people who do these things maliciously are in the minority, I hope."
CHP spokesman Tom Marshall declined to comment. Barr, Toth and state Deputy Atty. Gen. David Taglienti, who represented them, did not return phone calls seeking comment. Barr is still stationed at El Cajon. Toth has retired.
Grassilli praised the CHP officers who had come forward to back his version of events. Still, he said, he cannot believe his one complaint escalated as much as it did.
"I never believed they could do this. I could see them getting mad and giving me a ticket maybe once," Grassilli said. "There were a lot of officers that came forward. I'm just lucky."