The Meriden Police Department was dealt a legal blow this week when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit denied its appeal of a U.S. District Court judge’s ruling that a jury erred in clearing officers who used a stun gun on a man during a drug sting.
In its 3-0 ruling Thursday, Judges Guido Calabresi, Amalya Kearse and Debra Ann Livingston said they were dismissing the appeal by Meriden Officers Kenneth Egan and John Slezak and four other officers for a lack of jurisdiction.
Calabresi, who wrote the 10-page ruling, said the federal appellate court did not have jurisdiction, because U.S. District Judge Stefan Underhill had granted a new trail, which is still pending.
The officers in their appeal argued the jury’s April 2016 verdict in their favor should stand because of qualified immunity, which protects government officials from civil lawsuits.
But like their overall suit, that issue appeared unripe.
“This case is not in a meaningfully different posture than it was prior to trial, where the officers acknowledged that a finding of qualified immunity would have been premature,” Calabresi wrote. “It remains premature now.”
At issue was the March 2011 arrest of plaintiff Derrick Bryant, who police said was arrested in a “buy-and-bust” drug sting. The parties dispute much of what occurred, both sides agree Det. John Cerejo, a defendant in the case, punched Bryant multiple times. Cerejo’s testimony suggests he was trying to prevent Bryant from hiding a bag of crack cocaine in his anus.
But Bryant’s civil rights lawsuit alleges Egan and Slezak, among other officers, had used excessive force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.
A police video showed Slezak approaching Bryant, who Egan restrained against a wall.
Slezak had a Taser. He testified at trial he brought the Taser for safety reasons and to encourage Bryant to submit to a controlled strip search. The recordings show Slezak bringing the Taser closer to Bryant. Slezak testified he used the Taser after observing the plaintiff “make a sudden movement to his groin area.”
Police say Bryant was on the ground with his pants down when an officer recovered a bag of crack cocaine.
The lawsuit included allegations that six officers used excessive force and did an unreasonable strip search. It claimed the officers unlawfully penetrated Bryant’s anal cavity when searching him in the holding cell, and gratuitously stunned him multiple times while he was kept in the cell.
The trial was held over six days in April 2016 and the jury returned a verdict for the defendants on all counts.
But Underhill ordered a new trial, saying, “It was against the weight of the evidence for the jury to have found that Bryant’s Fourth Amendment rights were not violated when he was tased.”
The appeal by Meriden police followed. It argued Underhill was wrong in his assessment of what the jury did, and said that qualified immunity should shield the officers from a new trial.
Attorneys for both sides failed to respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment Friday. But in a June 2016 objection to the plaintiff’s motion for judgment as a matter of law, the officers’ lawyers argued Bryant’s case did not meet the criteria for a new trial because the jury’s verdict did not go against the weight of the evidence, wasn’t seriously erroneous and did not result in a miscarriage of justice.
“With respect to the Fourth Amendment claims addressed in the plaintiff’s motion, the jury specifically found that plaintiff failed to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that he was subjected to excessive force or an unreasonable search,” the filing states.
Patrick Allen and James Tallberg of Karsten Tallberg in Rocky Hill represented the Meriden Police Department, while East Hartford solo practitioner Josephine Smalls Miller served as Bryant’s counsel.