Odd Ruling In Brutality Case


SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) Nov. 1, 1996

After finding two men were victims of police brutality, a jury awarded them $6,000. Then the judge ordered them to pay $241,000 for the officers' attorney fees.
"As far as I'm concerned, it's a travesty," said Thomas Beck, attorney for plaintiffs Jose Bernal and Shawn Choate.
"It was bad enough that they had to get beat up and hurt," Beck said. "How do I explain to my clients what happened, that they have to pay the money even though they won?"

Superior Court Judge David Brickner, in a three-page ruling received by attorneys this week, referred to Bernal and Choate as "notorious local hooligans."

According to testimony, they were beaten with a pipe, a board and a brick, then kicked by deputies who chased them down after another man vandalized a deputy's car.

Jurors found that deputies Brian Scanlan and Kurt Bourne misused their authority and used excessive force, and that they and another deputy injured the defendants and one of their friends.

"Had all the players in this little drama been civilians, there is no question it would have been viewed as an ordinary, mutual street fight. Not even the most wildly imaginative attorney would think of suing on these facts," the judge wrote.

"Unfortunately for all concerned, its merits existed only in the minds of the plaintiffs, who apparently dreamed of reaping vast financial rewards for themselves and their counsel as just compensation for their obnoxious conduct."

Brickner denied the plaintiffs' request for attorney fees, and although the jury ruled for Bernal and Choate, he said their case was without merit. "You've got to be kidding," said University of Southern California law professor Erwin Chemerinsky. "I think this is extraordinary and clearly an abuse of discretion." Beck has appealed, saying his clients can't and won't pay. The attorney said the judge didn't even ask to see opposing lawyers' bills. Attorney S. Frank Harrell, who handles sheriff's department cases, said he was pleased with the judgment, although he didn't expect to collect much money.

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