St. Landry: Court upholds damages against sheriff’s office, police

A state appeals court upheld a $124,715 judgment Wednesday in an excessive force case against the Eunice Police Department and the St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office.

The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision comes in a lawsuit filed by Jurnell Smith, who sought damages after officers used pepper spray and a stun gun against him when he drove up on a crime scene near his Eunice home in 2009.

“This was a case where the police officers simply overreacted,” said attorney Kenneth Willis, who with attorney Jarvis Claiborne represented Smith.

Smith, a U.S. Air Force retiree who was working as a supervisor at the Pine Prairie Correctional Center, was driving home from Ville Platte when he came upon a scene where officers had detained a man suspected in a stabbing at a nearby bar.

Smith said the road was not blocked and no officers were directing traffic, so he attempted to slowly drive past the scene to get home, according to a summary of his version of events in court documents.

Smith said he was aggressively approached by St. Landry Parish sheriff’s Deputy Eric Reed and later by Eunice police Officer Brian Rozas, according to court documents.

Claiborne, one of Smith’s attorneys, said Smith was caught off guard by the escalating encounter, which ended with pepper spray and repeated shocks with a stun gun when Smith tried to open the door to comply with a request to get out of the car.

“They are yelling and screaming at him,” Claiborne said. “They don’t want to hear anything he has to say.”

The Sheriff’s Office and Police Department had argued Smith allegedly refused to answer questions when approached by officers, would not get out of his car when asked to do so, and slapped and pushed at Rozas when he tried to pull Smith from the car.

Eunice police cited Smith on counts of interfering with the duties of a police officer and resisting arrest, but a judge acquitted him on both counts.

In the civil trial for damages, state District Judge Alonzo Harris awarded $124,715 for general damages, emotional distress, medical expenses and lost wages, writing in his ruling that Smith was “minding his own business and trying to get home.”

The judge split the $124,715 in damages between the Sheriff’s Office and the Police Department.

The Sheriff’s Office did not appeal, but the Eunice Police Department has sought to toss out the damage award, arguing that the officers had justification to forcibly detain Smith.

The appeals court disagreed, upholding Harris’ finding that the officers used excessive force.