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Disabled man wins excessive force judgment against LAPD

Jurors award nearly $1.6 million to a stroke victim who was handcuffed so tightly that he suffered nerve damage. An officer is also ordered to pay $90,000.

November 09, 2012|By Joel Rubin, Los Angeles Times

A jury this week found that a Los Angeles police officer used excessive force when he handcuffed a partially paralyzed man tightly enough to cause nerve damage to the man's wrist.

Allen Harris, 56, was awarded nearly $1.6 million Wednesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court for his injuries, marking the latest in a long string of seven-figure verdicts against the Los Angeles Police Department for officer misconduct.

On Thursday, the jury returned to court and took the somewhat unusual step of ordering the accused officer, Alex Tellez, to pay an additional $90,000 himself after finding "clear and convincing evidence" that he acted maliciously toward Harris, according to court records.

One juror said in an interview after the verdict that the case was particularly troubling to her and others on the panel because of what she described as the unforthcoming testimony of Tellez and the nine other officers who took the stand during the trial. All of the officers testified that they did not know who had handcuffed Harris, according to both juror Gayle Chavkin and Harris' attorney. The officers also claimed under oath that Harris, a stroke victim who walks with a pronounced limp, showed no signs of being disabled during the encounter, the attorney and juror said.

"It was the same testimony over and over and over: 'I don't recall. I don't recall,'" Chavkin said. "They were clearly just closing ranks....It felt untruthful to us. Somebody matching Officer Tellez's description handcuffed Mr. Harris that day and hurt him."

If the officers had been more candid, the jury may have come down less harshly and ordered the city to pay less money to Harris, Chavkin said. "It was completely unbelievable to us that out of 10 officers, no one remembered anything," she said.

The verdict stems from a November 2009 case in which the LAPD was investigating an armed robbery from a store where one of Harris' sons worked. The son was a suspect in the crime and the detective investigating the case obtained a warrant to search the Inglewood apartment Harris shared with his son.

When officers serving the warrant knocked on the apartment door early Nov. 10, the son answered and was quickly taken into custody, Harris and his attorney, V. James DeSimone, said in an interview. Officers then entered the apartment and ordered Harris to put his hands up, turn around and walk backward toward the officers, Harris said.

Harris put his right arm up and told the officers repeatedly that he was unable to follow their commands because of his disability, he said. Ignoring his pleas, an officer Harris later identified as Tellez clamped a cuff around his left wrist, pulled him out of the apartment, and forced both his arms behind his back to fully handcuff him.

Doctors hired by both sides to give expert opinions about Harris' injuries testified that the handcuffing caused nerve damage to his wrist that left Harris' hand less functional than it had been before, DeSimone said.

Harris' son was not charged in the robbery.

Tellez did not respond to a request for comment. In a prepared statement, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck he was "disappointed by the verdict and the monetary award" and supported plans by the city attorney's office to appeal.

In his statement, Beck questioned the legitimacy of Harris' claims, saying that Harris never mentioned being hurt to the officers and that he waited four days before he sought treatment. Harris and DeSimone rebutted both claims, saying Harris complained about his wrist that morning and that medical records show he sought treatment two days later.

In ordering Tellez to pay the $90,000 in punitive damages, Chavkin said jurors felt "we needed to send a message that this is not right — don't ever do this again. We felt there needed to be a consequence for him disregarding Mr. Harris' pleas."

It's unclear whether Tellez will have to pay the money. City officials can choose to indemnify him.

joel.rubin@latimes.com

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