The Star-News


Sometimes testifying can cost you

Sat, Aug 04 2012 12:00 PM Posted By: Tom Basinski

The driving force of the news business is immediacy. A blockbuster topic will be front page for a few days then vanish forever. Remember Rebecca Zahau in Coronado? Only because it was a suspicious death of an attractive woman in the home of a wealthy, divorced man whose son had just died in the same house under questionable circumstances. Did that drama stay in the headlines?

Most blockbuster stories captivate the producers and editors for only a few seconds in time before the media decision makers move on to the next tragedy. Seldom is there follow up.

I like to find out what happened to stories that lit up the universe then vanished into space. This brings to mind the federal civil verdict awarded to an ICE agent against five of Chula Vista’s finest. I wrote about it April 16, 2010.
You may recall that the ICE agent was on surveillance in our town and temporarily left his post (with permission) to get food. While en route back he heard a radio transmission that the surveillance target was moving. He sped back. A Chula Vista officer spotted him disobeying numerous traffic laws and tried to pull him over. The agent finally stopped.
From there the stories differed. The agent said he complied with the officers’ requests and didn’t resist. The officers said he resisted. A tussle ensued with the agent being handcuffed.

No charges were issued, but the agent filed a lawsuit for misconduct against the city and five officers, including two sergeants.

The locals were found liable by a federal court jury for misconduct and brutality. What got me was the plaintiff’s attorney asked for a million dollars, but was awarded $2.2 million. The kicker was that $1 million were punitive damages to be paid by the cops from their own pockets.

Something was weird.

How did the plaintiff’s attorney wring a judgment over double what he asked for? I snooped around. Although both sides were sworn to silence I learned the jury did not like one of the Chula Vista officers. Apparently the jury perceived him as arrogant, condescending, and less than truthful. This piqued my interest because I taught Courtroom Testimony in the police academy for about 17 years. This guy must not have been in my class.

Maybe I’m imagining things, but I consider myself as possessing a razor-sharp sense of humor. I am prone to sarcasm and the quick put-down, which is  not always appreciated. For example, I am no longer welcome at district attorney investigator social events. I was asked to perform once and my performance was not enjoyed by certain ranking members of that establishment. The regular working cops loved it though.

Before Rick Emerson became chief I emceed all the CVPD retirement and Christmas parties, even after I left CVPD, and whatever came along that needed an M.C. Chief Rick witnessed my act once and I was history.

My point is that in the academy I told the recruits their court appearances were an “away game.” They should not get comfortable, and they should be prepared. They should be polite and respectful to both sides. If they had the chance to drop a “zinger,” they should pass. Most of all, no matter what, they should tell the truth.

Apparently one of the Chula Vista cops talked down to the opposing attorney, was rude, sarcastic, and came across as less than truthful.

The city appealed the multi-million dollar judgment. The plaintiff accepted a reduced offer of $1.7 million and the individual officers were relieved of personal responsibility to pay. The cops kept their jobs (though one has since retired) and the city’s insurer picked up most of that amount.

The plaintiff accepted the reduced amount because an appellate court would probably have deemed the original judgement excessive, especially the punitive damages. That’s the rest of the story, and it’s a sad one.

Basinski was a Chula Vista officer for 17 years and a DA investigator for 17.


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