Appeals court upholds verdict against St. George police officer
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday upheld a federal jury's decision that a former St. George police officer violated a man's Fourth Amendment rights during a 2006 burglary investigation.
In his appeal, Jared Taylor argued that the district court judge made several errors, including rejection of Taylor's argument that he detained Mark Plascencia as part of an "investigatory stop" rather than an arrest or that he was entitled to qualified immunity. Taylor also challenged one of the jury instructions.
The court said the level of force employed by an officer helps distinguish a stop from an arrest that requires probable cause, making it "an important component of our inquiry."
On April 29, 2006, Taylor was sent to the home of a St. George couple who had reported a possible burglary. The couple said they had found a cellphone in their home that did not belong to them and had no idea how it had turned up there. Shortly after Taylor arrived, the phone rang.
An unidentified caller said the phone belonged to him and that he had lost it earlier. Without identifying himself as a police officer, Taylor asked the caller Plascencia to meet him at a nearby Pizza Hut to retrieve the cellphone. Taylor found no other evidence of a break-in at the couple's home.
Plascencia and a co-worker arrived at the restaurant and Plascencia identified himself as the owner of the cellphone. Without asking any questions, Taylor grabbed Plascencia's hands and cuffed them behind his back. Plascencia cried out in pain and told Taylor he had arthritis in his hands and wrists and that the cuffs were too tight.
Taylor later testified he handcuffed Plascencia because he was a felony burglary suspect, though there was no evidence he had threatened anyone, was resisting arrest or had a weapon.
Taylor then pushed Plascencia outside the restaurant, where he hit Plascencia's legs with a baton to spread them. As Taylor searched Plascencia for a weapon, he kept the man's arms raised behind his back, which again caused Plascencia to cry out in pain.
Taylor found Plascencia was unarmed and removed the handcuffs. As he did so, Plascencia passed out and began to fall. He was caught by his co-worker and the officer. Plascencia was taken to Dixie Regional Medical Center, where he remained overnight because of concerns he had suffered a heart attack.
Plascencia later sued Taylor, the city of St. George and the city's police department on several claims. A federal judge dismissed the city and police department as defendants and dismissed all claims except those alleging violation of the constitutional right to be free from unreasonable seizure and use of excessive force.
After a five-day trial in October 2011, a jury found Taylor had acted unreasonably in seizing Plascencia and used excessive force on him and subsequently awarded him $5,000 in damages. The appellate court said the district court had sufficient evidence to uphold the decision by the jury, which could have concluded Plascencia was handcuffed, moved from the restaurant and subjected to forceful techniques without any objectively reasonable officer safety concerns.