This story was originally published by the Oregonian/OregonLive and is reprinted with permission.
A jury Thursday awarded more than $3 million in damages to a Salem man wrongly accused by a police officer of stealing a car and then shoved against a patrol car and handcuffed after he walked away.
The eight-member jury ordered the city of Salem to pay $2 million to Christopher Garza in punitive damages, $1 million in non-economic damages and $150,000 in economic damages after finding Salem Officer David S. Baker used excessive force in violation of Garza’s civil rights and committed battery and false arrest under state law.
Punitive damages are awarded to punish the city and officer and to deter similar wrongdoing. Non-economic damages are for the mental suffering, distress or humiliation Garza suffered from the officer’s actions, and the economic damages are for the cost of his medical care, loss of income and earning capacity.
Baker had accused Garza of stealing a car when he pulled up to Garza and two other men who were working on a broken car in the OK Tire lot about 12:30 a.m. on Sept. 17, 2021.
Garza, who is part Native American and Latino, lived in an RV on the property.
He testified that Baker asked him if he was stealing the car. Garza said he told the officer he wasn’t stealing the car and asked who had called police, saying: “Why are you here?”
“I felt like he was stereotyping me, like he was profiling me,” Garza, 49, testified. “And I turned around and walked back to the car.”
That’s when Baker grabbed Garza’s arm, shoved him against the hood of his police car, handcuffed him and wrenched one of his arms in the air, injuring Garza’s shoulder, according to court testimony and a video of the encounter. Garza was placed in the back of the police car but released about 10 minutes later with no charges.
Baker, who joined Salem police in 2013, forcefully raised Garza’s arm up and lifted Garza’s feet off the ground after he had handcuffed him with no justification and in violation of his training, Garza’s lawyer, Jason Kafoury, argued.
“Just that action right there alone is excessive force,” Kafoury said “There was no need to wrench that arm. Officer Baker knew that was designed to hurt.”
Garza, who is about 5-foot-4, wasn’t a threat and had done nothing wrong, Kafoury said.
Kafoury said Baker’s “approach was ugly, accusatory and immediately hands-on with someone who wouldn’t listen to him.”
“This wasn’t an armed robbery,” Kafoury argued at closing arguments. “It was just three Hispanic guys sitting around with a broken car.”
The jury of five men and three women returned its verdict after deliberating for about 90 minutes following a four-day trial before U.S. District Judge Marco A. Hernandez in Portland.
“I give all the praise to God,” Garza said after the verdict was read. The father of four works as a barber and lives in Salem. He said he will use the money to fulfill his mission to help build churches.
Garza also thanked jurors as they filed out of the courtroom.
Attorney Sebastian Tapia, who represented Salem, argued that Baker had “objectively reasonable suspicion to stop” Garza because he believed a crime was being committed. The officer used a slight amount of force because Garza was struggling with him and resisting being handcuffed, Tapia told jurors.
Baker said Garza refused to identify himself or answer his questions.
Tapia also said Garza’s shoulder injury was due to a degenerative ailment and didn’t result from the encounter with Baker.
Force of this level was necessary because of Mr. Garza,” Tapia told jurors.
Kafoury countered that Baker had “no valid explanation for wrenching a guy’s arms upwards when he’s cuffed.”
Baker’s use-of-force report indicated Garza had some object in his left hand, but it was never documented, Kafoury noted. If Baker thought Garza was holding something in his left hand, why would Baker have reached and grabbed Garza’s right hand first, Kafoury said.
Kafoury urged jurors to consider: “Who had the power? Who had all the control?” at the scene.
“This was avoidable. Officer Baker never had to use any force. And this never would have happened,” Kafoury said. “He was the initiator. He was the controller of every single use of force that happened to my client.”
He said a Salem police sergeant signed off on Baker’s report 18 minutes after it was written, without investigating why force was used against someone who wasn’t charged with a crime.
Sydnie Ihne, who served as jury foreperson, said, “I’m just glad he got justice.”
Another juror Matt Harris said, “We just listened to the evidence and put the pieces together.” After court, Kafoury said the city of Salem had previously offered $12,000 to settle the case.
Attorney Greg Kafoury, who also represented Garza, said the verdict should send a message “far and wide to police departments that even the citizens of the smallest towns in Oregon care about integrity in police agencies and deserve the kinds of officers who will serve and protect all of us.”
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