PHILADELPHIA – Confusion hit a Philadelphia federal courtroom last week when jurors ruled both for and against two police officers accused of civil rights violations.
Seven jurors seemed to have ruled that the two officers did not violate Herbert Spellman’s Fourth Amendment rights during a search, but they then unnecessarily answered another question on the verdict form and imposed $10,000 in punitive damages against each officer.
After a poll of the jurors, U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell entered a verdict in favor of the officers on March 18.
“It seemed to us that, notwithstanding the jury’s confusion, the law obliged us to grant the defendants’ motion to enter judgment, which we did this day,” Dalzell wrote.
“Although we readily agreed with plaintiff’s able counsel that there was an element of unfairness in this, we were nevertheless constrained to apply the law as our Court of Appeals has articulated it in its Model Jury Instructions…”
Spellman filed his complaint in June against the City of Philadelphia and officers Brad Momme and David O’Connor.
Spellman, who is black, said he was grabbed by the officers on Sept. 10, 2013, while walking on Wister Street.
Spellman told the two that he is an injured former officer, but they searched him without cause and verbally abused him, he said.
He says he was caused injuries after the officers grabbed him, though no formal criminal charges were ever brought against him.
However, the jurors ruled neither officer “seized, searched and detained” him in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
After entering a “No” answer to each of the questions, the jurors should have given the verdict sheet to the deputy clerk.
“Notwithstanding these clear instructions, the jury nevertheless answered question ‘D’ in the affirmative as to each officer’s acting ‘maliciously or wantonly in violating Mr. Spellman’s federally protected rights’ and imposed $10,000 as punitive damages as to each officer,” Dalzell wrote.
Asked by the deputy clerk if the jurors found in favor of the police officers and against Spellman, the seven agreed without hesitation, Dalzell wrote.
He then entered the defendants’ motion to enter the judgment in accordance with the results of the jury polling.
“We were fortified in our conclusion by the lack of ambiguity as regards the jury’s decision not to compensate the plaintiff as to the consequences of what the officers did or did not do to the plaintiff,” Dalzell wrote.
“We therefore concluded that judgment should be entered in accordance with the jury’s unhesitating conclusion that neither officer ‘seized, searched and detained Herbert Spellman in violation of the Fourth Amendment causing harm to Mr. Spellman.’”
The City of Philadelphia was dismissed as a defendant shortly before trial.
From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach editor John O’Brien at firstname.lastname@example.org.