Excessive force verdict leaves plaintiff’s attorneys scratching their heads
The $239,000 awarded Sept. 21 to former Baton Rouge resident Brian Townsend in an excessive-force case involving ex-city police officer Nathan Davis was a far cry from the $750,000 in general damages that Townsend’s attorneys asked a jury to mete out.
Townsend’s lawyers also had urged the East Baton Rouge Parish jury to award punitive damages, which they explained are intended to punish and send a message, but the jury denied that request. Perhaps the jury sent an alternative message that — as attorneys for Davis and the city-parish argued during the week-long trial at the 19th Judicial District Courthouse — Townsend bore a measure of responsibility for the events during the early-morning hours of March 4, 2007.
Davis’ attorney, Henry Olinde Jr., argued that an intoxicated Townsend “lit the match” by being uncooperative with and belligerent toward police. Henri Saunders, one of Townsend’s attorneys, contended the case was about “abuse of power and personal responsibility.”
Townsend, who suffered a ruptured bladder during his misdemeanor arrest that morning, sued Davis and the city-parish later that month. Davis was fired in July 2007 after an internal probe concluded he used excessive force during the arrest. He pleaded guilty in 2009 to violating Townsend’s civil rights and was sentenced to more than six years in federal prison.
In a plea agreement with federal prosecutors, Davis admitted he pepper-sprayed Townsend’s face while the man’s hands were cuffed behind him. Davis testified in federal court in 2009 that he did not kick Townsend in the groin at a police substation on Highland Road. In an Aug. 30 videotaped deposition from a Texas prison played in state court Sept. 20, Davis again denied he ever kicked Townsend.
Davis’ deposition testimony was to some degree contradicted by that of former Baton Rouge Police Officer Nicholas Batiste, who along with Davis responded to anonymous complaints of noise coming from Townsend’s Highland Creek Parkway residence on the morning in question.
Batiste, who also was at the Highland substation when Davis later booked Townsend on noise violation and resisting arrest, testified from Austin, Texas, that Townsend taunted Davis at the substation by repeatedly chanting Davis’ name and telling him he was going to have his job. Davis replied by telling Townsend to “shut up,” Batiste said.
At one point, Batiste said, Davis rushed behind him in the direction of the holding room where Townsend was handcuffed.
“I heard a loud thump noise, and I heard Brian yell, ‘Ow, he kicked me’,” Batiste said.
Olinde, Davis’ attorney, told the jury there were no eyewitnesses to the alleged kick. Olinde noted that Batiste, who admitted lying in his police report about the arrest, was given federal immunity from prosecution. Olinde also described Townsend as an “actor” who cried throughout his trial testimony but shed no tears during his prior deposition in the case.
Townsend testified his bladder ruptured when Davis kicked him, but the defense put on medical testimony that Townsend’s bladder could have ruptured when police tackled him near the front door of his home.
The jury found that Davis pepper-sprayed Townsend but did not kick him. Jurors also determined that Davis’ actions did not occur during the course and scope of his employment, meaning the city-parish is not liable for the damages awarded to Townsend.
Townsend’s attorneys said they will file post-trial motions in an effort to correct where they believe the jury erred.
Joe Gyan Jr. covers courts for The Advocate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.