Tuesday, March 22, 2011 at 3:56 p.m.
A federal jury this afternoon issued mixed results for a group of South County residents--including a male supermodel and world-champion athlete--who sued Orange County Sheriff's Department deputies in Dana Point for false arrest and excessive force during a 2007 incident.
The panel rejected the claims of all of four male plaintiffs but found that Deputy Brett Gardner had falsely arrested Miriam Lew, the lone female plaintiff. Jurors set the amount of damages for Lew, a Laguna Beach resident, at $10,000.
Lew had claimed that Gardner threw her out of an RV parked near Salt Creek Beach off Pacific Coast Highway. But jurors did not agree excessive force was used to arrest her, only unnecessary force.
"I would say it was a partial victory," said Scott Borthwick, a lawyer for the group. "For the guys, it was a victory just standing up to the bully deputies."
Deputies filed criminal charges against each member of the group, but prosecutors in the Orange County district attorney's office ultimately rejected the case because of a series of inconsistent statements made by the deputies.
It's expected that a private law firm that represented the deputies at taxpayer expense will next ask federal Judge Cormac Carney to erase the damages on an officer-immunity claim.
After the verdicts, five members of the panel--each of whom seemed quite articulate and reasonable--stayed in the hallway and answered questions by the lawyers in the case. They said it "was easy" to reject the claims of three of the plaintiffs because they had asked to be arrested in protest over the way deputies treated their friends. They opined that Deputy Jose Pelayo was the most calm and professional at the scene and "believable" on the witness stand. But they did not accept Gardner's sworn claim that Lew had "intentionally" assaulted him or the deputies' testimony that they had not been using foul language during the incident.
Although they praised the two leading civil lawyers in the case (Joshua Stock for the plaintiffs and Dennis M. Gonzales for the deputies), they criticized Gonzales for repeatedly twisting obvious facts in an attempt to smear the defendants. For example, prior to the arrests, the group had attended a wave sporting event in San Diego. Over and over, Gonzales claimed that the plaintiffs had been to a "rave" party.
"I know what you were trying to imply," one female juror told Gonzales. "But, no . . ."
"Oh, I didn't know," said Gonzales.
At least someone was gracious. Before leaving the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse, losing plaintiff Dominic Prietto (of Make Me a Supermodel fame) looked at the deputies and said, "No hard feelings. See you at the beach."
The deputies just stared back.
See previous coverage of the case HERE
R. Scott Moxley / OC Weekly