Crime

Ceres settles lawsuit against police for $312,500

The city has paid $312,500 to settle a lawsuit that alleges one of its officers broke a handcuffed woman’s arm as he slammed her against a police car.

Modesto-area resident Yesenia Jimenez sued Ceres and police Officer Frederico Ortiz in federal court in July 2013, claiming, among other things, civil rights violations, assault and battery, and false arrest. Jimenez was represented by San Francisco attorney Sanjay Schmidt.

Ceres admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement and denied the allegations in court filings. The filings also claim that because the police acted in good faith and without malice and with the reasonable belief its actions were legal, the city is legally protected.

Ceres was represented by attorney Cornelius Callahan with the Modesto law firm Borton Petrini. He said it was a business decision to settle by the Central San Joaquin Valley Risk Management Authority. Ceres pays the authority an annual amount to handle claims and lawsuits filed against the city.

City Manager Toby Wells said the authority is paying the settlement and the city’s legal costs. Callahan said the legal costs are roughly $37,500. Wells said Ceres paid the authority about $460,000 in its current fiscal year for liability coverage.

Jimenez was among a couple hundred people at a party at a residence in the 3400 block of McGee Road just outside the city Aug. 10, 2012. Stanislaus County sheriff’s deputies were summoned to respond to a noise complaint; Ceres officers arrived to help the deputies.

Schmidt said people were leaving the party, and Jimenez and her friends were walking in the street to their car. He said Ortiz called out to the group and that Jimenez “made some sassy remark to the officer.” He said Ortiz removed her from the group and handcuffed her.

Schmidt said Jimenez and one of her friends claim that while Jimenez was handcuffed and facing a police car, Ortiz lifted her handcuffed arms and slammed her into the car, causing the bone in her right arm between the elbow and shoulder to break in three places. Schmidt said Jimenez underwent surgery two days later and had two follow-up procedures.

“The only dispute,” Schmidt said, “is how much force he used. Jimenez described it as a very forceful, quick movement that caused her arm to break.” He said two medical experts concluded that Ortiz’s actions were the cause of Jimenez’s broken arm.

Schmidt said Ortiz demonstrated what he had done at the deposition and depicted himself using significantly less force than what Jimenez claimed. Ortiz testified that he used the maneuver on Jimenez because she was turning her body, according to Schmidt.

Schmidt said while Jimenez – who he said was 18 at the time – was arrested on suspicion of public intoxication and resisting arrest and taken to the Public Safety Center, prosecutors never filed charges against her. He also disputed city officials’ contention that Jimenez was intoxicated. He said while she had had something to drink earlier in the day, she was in full control of her faculties.

Callahan said Jimenez was intoxicated and was impeding cars that were leaving the party. He added that while Jimenez complained of pain, officers found no evidence of a broken arm and she was able to move both arms freely. He added that while Jimenez’s arm was broken at some point that evening, it was not done by police.

“My client and I both feel justice was served” with the settlement, Schmidt said. “The injury speaks for itself. The objective medical evidence was overwhelming that this injury was the result of excessive force.

“We hope that bringing this case forward will help guide officers’ conduct and help the (Police) Department with training and setting policies so it does not happen to someone else.”

Wells said the policy Ceres is pursuing is to equip its officers with body cameras. He expects that to happen this year. He said the cameras will provide a visual record that officials can rely upon rather than witnesses’ often-conflicting accounts.

Wells said Ortiz continues to work as a Ceres police officer. Ortiz and Jimenez could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Callahan said Jimenez was the only person arrested by Ceres police at the party and the only person to file a lawsuit against the city.

He said had the lawsuit gone to trial and a jury found Ceres in any way responsible for Jimenez’s injuries, it would have been liable for her medical bills and attorney fees. He said those costs were about $225,000 when attorneys were engaged in settlement talks earlier this year.

At one point, two other Ceres officers, Stanislaus County and the county’s medical provider at its Public Safety Center were named in the lawsuit, which claimed Jimenez did not get proper medical care at the center. Schmidt said the officers, the county and provider were removed from the lawsuit.

The lawsuit was dismissed in federal court Friday after the settlement agreement was reached.

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at kvaline@modbee.com or (209) 578-2316.

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