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Trial Lawyer Justin Sanders Talks Winning $1.1 Million Police Brutality Case Against Santa Monica Police Department
By Dr. Valerie Wardlaw, Contributing Writer
Published September 22, 2016
Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo

Trial lawyer Justin H. Sanders of Sanders Roberts & Jewett won a police brutality case in federal court on behalf of Justin Palmer, 36, a resident of Santa Monica, arrested by the Santa Monica police on April 21, 2015.  A federal jury awarded Palmer $1.1 million in damages on Friday, September 2, 2016.

Palmer, a Black man, married father of four, and graduate of New York University with no criminal history was arrested after charging his car at an electric charging station in Virginia Avenue Park in Santa Monica.  Santa Monica police alleged that the park had closed for the night and Palmer refused to leave the park when instructed and provide identification when asked by officers.  Santa Monica police alleged that Palmer violated a municipal code and resisted arrest.

Sanders, trial attorney for Palmer, presented evidence that Palmer arrived at the charging station well before 11 p.m. when officers told him that the park was closed while others (non-Blacks) continued to use the park.  Sanders proved that the Santa Monica police used excessive force against his client during the interaction when they handcuffed him, threw him to the ground, causing Palmer to land on the side of his face.  One of the officers then pepper sprayed Palmer while he was on the ground.

The Santa Monica – Venice branch of the NAACP said the case pointed toward racial profiling, reciting numerous cases where non-African American users of the electric charging station charged their cars after 11:00 p.m.  Recently, the L.A. Sentinel sat down with Sanders to discuss this significant verdict against the Santa Monica Police Department.

Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo

LAS:  Congratulations on what you have described as a rare verdict against the Santa Monica Police department.

JHS:  Thank you and yes, it is rare.  It’s extremely difficult to get cases into court against police officers.

LAS:  Were you surprised that this incident took place in eco-friendly Santa Monica?

JHS:  This case shows that even in supposedly liberal Santa Monica, things can happen.

LAS:  How did your law firm get involved in this case?

JHS:  We received the call about 48 hours after the incident.  Justin was referred to our office by a mutual friend who was familiar with a 2010 police brutality case I had against the L.A. County Sheriff, Dupree v. County of Los Angeles, et al.  In that case, my client was paralyzed when he fell off a bunk after being tasered.

LAS:  Why did you choose to bring this case in federal court?

JHS:  Based on my experiences, federal judges are more familiar with the specific civil rights law at issue and I did not want to have this trial in Santa Monica.

LAS:  Were there negotiations to settle the case prior to the trial?

JHS:  There were brief and insubstantial negotiations.  The officers involved in this case were in total denial.

LAS:  The NAACP – Venice branch has said that this case is proof of racial profiling practiced by the Santa Monica police department. Do you share that belief?

JHS:  The NAACP played an integral role in helping us win this case.  Their leader, Darrell Goode, was critical.  They came to the trial every day.  Would this have happened if Justin Palmer were white or another race?  Probably not, but it’s possible.

One of the officers involved had just settled a lawsuit where it was alleged he assaulted a middle-aged white Santa Monica soccer mom. In our case, there was no evidence that the motivating factor was racial bias or jealousy.  Juries will reject allegations of racism unless it’s backed by good evidence.  The one thing a racist doesn’t like to be called is a “racist.”  In fact, during jury selection, several potential jurors commented that our client better not be playing “the race card.”

I am not blind to the racial issues normally at play in these cases; I’m just saying that this case was more about abuse of authority than race.  One officer was Asian, the other was Latino.  I didn’t sleep a wink last night after watching that Terence Cruthcher video (the unarmed Black man who was killed by Oklahoma police as he walked towards his car with his hands raised).  I’m so angry.  I’m going to the Dodger game tonight and let’s just say I’ll be joining Colin Kaepernick’s movement.  Dirty cops need to go to jail – that is the only way to stop them.

LAS:  So it was a conscious decision to keep race out of the trial?

JHS:  Yes.  It was a source of debate among our trial team and in the end, we concluded it was in the best interest of our client and the search for justice not to inject race when there was no evidence to support it.

LAS:  The chief of the Santa Monica Police Department is Jacqueline A. Seabrooks, a Black female.  Can you describe her involvement and/or handling of this case?

JHS:  I have nothing but high praise for Chief Seabrooks.  The attorneys for the city of Santa Monica and the police department vigorously defended the case.  If there had been an internal investigation, I think the case could have been settled because the wrongdoing on the part of the officers was evident.  Unfortunately, it ended up as an all-out war.  After the verdict, Chief Seabrooks handled the situation well.

LAS:  What does this verdict mean for Justin Palmer and his family?

JHS:  It means justice was served – at least in part.  The truth was always on our side and the family feels vindicated.  It was important that his four daughters see their father vindicated.  They are highly intelligent people and I’m sure they will put the financial compensation to good use for their children.

LAS:  What does the case mean for Sanders Roberts & Jewett?

JHS:  We are very pleased with the verdict although no amount of money can make our client whole.  We worked extremely hard on this case – probably harder than I ever have.  I am happy to see the fruits of that hard work ripen.

To contact Sanders Roberts & Jewett: 1055 West 7th Street, Suite 3050, Los Angeles, 90017, (213) 426-5000, sandersroberts.com.

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