Portland Jury Awards $3.15M Police Excessive Force Garza v. City of Salem

The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff and found that the defendant committed battery and false arrest, and used excessive force.

Man handcuffed on hood of car

ByZach Barreto

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Published on May 21, 2024

Man handcuffed on hood of car

Background

On September 17, 2021, at approximately 12:30 am, Officer David Baker, of the Salem Police Department, pulled into the parking lot of OK Tire of Salem, a tire and repair shop. At the time, Christopher Garza, along with two other men, were at the tire shop working on a car on the premises. When Officer Baker presented at the tire shop, he asked Mr. Garza if he was stealing the car. Mr. Garza failed to answer the question and walked away, which prompted Officer Baker to grab him by the neck and shoulder and shove him onto the hood of the police car. Officer Baker then handcuffed Mr. Garza and put him in the back of the squad car.

Unbeknownst to Officer Baker, Mr. Garza lived in an RV on the property. Upon discovering that Mr. Garza’s address was the same as the tire shop, Officer Baker released Mr. Garza without charges.

Plaintiff’s Allegations

Following the altercation, Mr. Garza and his attorney, Jason Kafoury of Kafoury & McDougal, filed a complaint against Officer Baker and the City of Salem. According to Mr. Garza, when Officer Baker grabbed Mr. Garza by the neck and shoulder, and shoved him onto the hood of the police car, Officer Barker injured his neck, shoulders, hand, and wrist. Additionally, Officer Baker put the handcuffs on Mr. Garza tightly and hyperextended his neck when he forcefully put him in the back of the police car.

Mr. Garza alleged that the stop, detention, and use of excessive force were intentional and done without probable cause, which violated his civil rights. According to Mr. Garza, his injuries required surgery, and he will continue to suffer from pain, discomfort, disability, interference with ordinary activities, embarrassment, frustration, anger, humiliation, a sense of personal violation, racial stigmatization, and increased vulnerability as a result of Officer Baker’s actions.

The city, represented by Sebastian Tapia, initially offered Mr. Garza $12,000 to settle the case. Mr. Garza refused the offer, and the matter was set for trial before U.S. District Judge Marco A. Hernandez in Portland.

The Trial and Verdict

At trial, Mr. Garza testified that he felt racially profiled by Officer Baker because he and the two men with him on September 17, 2021, were Hispanic. He also testified that he was fearful for his life during the confrontation. Mr. Garza’s attorney argued that Officer 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. Surveillance video from the tire shop confirmed the allegations and showed Officer Baker being rough with Mr. Garza before forcing his handcuffed arms upward towards the back of his head.

Mr. Garza’s medical expert testified that he sustained internal derangement of his right shoulder joint due to Officer Baker’s actions, which required surgery and would likely result in some permanent disability.

On the other hand, the city attorney argued that Officer Baker did not engage in racial profiling and had an objectively reasonable suspicion to stop. He also argued that Officer Baker only used a slight amount of force when Mr. Garza refused to identify himself or answer the officer’s questions, and resisted being handcuffed. Defendants also argued that Mr. Garza’s shoulder injury was due to a degenerative ailment and was not the result of the encounter with Officer Baker.

On November 9, 2023, following the four-day trial, the jury returned a verdict awarding Mr. Garza $3 million in damages. More specifically, $2 million was awarded in punitive damages, $1 million was awarded in non-economic damages, and $150,000 was awarded in economic damages. The jury found that Officer Baker used excessive force in violation of Mr. Garza’s civil rights, and committed battery and false arrest in violation of state law.

Key Takeaway

In the wake of George Floyd’s death in 2020, this country experienced a reckoning on policing. As such, jurors that at one time implicitly trusted police officers, now question their veracity and practices.

The jury’s award for punitive damages in this matter not only punishes the city and the officer for committing battery, false arrest, and using excessive force but also deters such behavior in the future.

Mr. Garza’s attorney believes that this verdict and the award for punitive damages sends a clear message to police departments that even the citizens of the smallest towns in Oregon care about integrity in police agencies and deserve the kind of officers who will serve and protect all community members.

About the author

Zach Barreto

Zach Barreto

Zach Barreto is a distinguished professional in the legal industry, currently serving as the Senior Vice President of Research at the Expert Institute. With a deep understanding of a broad range of legal practice areas, Zach's expertise encompasses personal injury, medical malpractice, mass torts, defective products, and many other sectors. His skills are particularly evident in handling complex litigation matters, including high-profile cases like the Opioids litigation, NFL Concussion Litigation, California Wildfires, 3M earplugs, Elmiron, Transvaginal Mesh, NFL Concussion Litigation, Roundup, Camp Lejeune, Hernia Mesh, IVC filters, Paraquat, Paragard, Talcum Powder, Zantac, and many others.

Under his leadership, the Expert Institute’s research team has expanded impressively from a single member to a robust team of 100 professionals over the last decade. This growth reflects his ability to navigate the intricate and demanding landscape of legal research and expert recruitment effectively. Zach has been instrumental in working on nationally significant litigation matters, including cases involving pharmaceuticals, medical devices, toxic chemical exposure, and wrongful death, among others.

At the Expert Institute, Zach is responsible for managing all aspects of the research department and developing strategic institutional relationships. He plays a key role in equipping attorneys for success through expert consulting, case management, strategic research, and expert due diligence provided by the Institute’s cloud-based legal services platform, Expert iQ.

Educationally, Zach holds a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and European History from Vanderbilt University.

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