A judge has awarded a Eunice man $124,715 in damages and related costs against the St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office and Eunice Police Department stemming from the man’s April 2009 arrest and the use of excessive force.
State District Judge Alonzo Harris found 55-year-old Jurnell Smith had committed no crime when officers encountered him on the night of April 22, 2009. Despite that, officers used excessive force, including pepper spray and a stun gun, to arrest him, Harris wrote in his judgment Thursday.
“Plaintiff was minding his own business trying to get home,” Harris wrote. “Plaintiff in this case is a law abiding citizen, had a long military career and subsequently working in law enforcement as a correctional officer for a number of years.”
According to the judgement, the incident occurred when Smith attempted to pass police vehicles that were parked on Martin Luther King Drive near Lloyd Street, where he lived. The officers were investigating a stabbing incident at a club in Eunice. Officers received a call that the stabbing suspect was seen walking in the area.
The judgment states that Smith testified that no one was directing traffic and he could not see officers inside the police units, which had emergency lights on. Smith said he drove slowly past the vehicles and then realized that one of the units was blocking access to his street. Smith was first confronted by sheriff’s Deputy Eric Reed and soon after by police Officer Brian Rozas.
Harris wrote that both officers overreacted, adding that one told Smith to stay in the car while the other asked him to get out of the car.
“Plaintiff was approached by Officer Rozas with gun drawn in his face having committed no crimes,” the judge wrote. “Even if the officers would have asked for his ID at that point, plaintiff was fearing for his life. He had not committed a crime. He did not know what to do at that point. One officer said stay in the car and then another says get out of the car. Plaintiff’s home was right there down the street.”
Smith said he was pepper sprayed and shocked by a stun gun when he reached over to his right to release his seatbelt, according to the judgment.
The judge noted that Smith has testified that he was not asked for identification while Reed has testified that he repeatedly asked Smith for identification.
Smith was later arrested on counts of resisting an officer and interfering with the duties of an officer. Smith was later found not guilty of both counts in Eunice City Court. After his acquittal, Smith filed a lawsuit against the Eunice Police Department and St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office, both of which were involved in Smith’s arrest.
In his judgment, Harris found the officers did use excessive force and noted that the plaintiff suffered an aggravation of prior medical conditions, emotional distress as a result of this incident and a loss of wages. The judge noted that Smith now works at a job making $5,433 less per year than what he made while working as a correctional officer before his arrest.
Smith’s attorney, Jarvis J. Claiborne, said Smith lost that job as a correctional officer because of his arrest.
“His life has never been the same, quite frankly, since that night. … He still has post traumatic issues that he faces each day when he passes by the spot where the incident occurred,” Claiborne said.
Sheriff Bobby Guidroz wrote in an email Friday that he believes his deputy acted properly since Smith “admitted he refused to immediately identify himself to officers at the scene of a volatile situation.”
Guidroz wrote he respects that the judge made a decision based on the facts as he understood them as a judge.
“My opinion is based on police experience dealing with individuals who play hard ball with police officers that have to make quick decisions,” Guidroz wrote. “As a Corrections Officer and supervisor, it is my opinion that Jurnell Smith should have been anxious to produce his credentials to the officers in order to prevent any confusion and trouble. He didn’t do that.”
Guidroz also wrote that he plans to speak with his attorney to determine whether an appeal is worth pursuing.
A call to the Eunice Police Department was not returned Friday.
Harris awarded Smith $50,000 in damages, $50,000 for emotional distress, $2,983 for medical bills and $21,732 in lost wages. Harris wrote that all costs, including the cost of Smith’s expert witness, will be assessed to the defendants at 50 percent each.