Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Grassilli v. Barr (Cal. Ct. App. - Sept. 13, 2006)

Think that organized police harassment of and retailiation against private citizens doesn't happen? Especially in San Diego? Ever wonder what it would look like if it did?

If so, read the first eighteen pages of this opinion. It's a fairly chilling tale of the organized, five-year police harassment and abuse of Steven Grassilli, a resident of and small business owner in Santa Ysabel, by various members of the California Highway Patrol. It's a deeply disturbing story, and the fact that Mr. Grassilli ends up -- after five more years of litigation -- winning a lawsuit against the defendants for violating his civil rights only partially makes up for the wholesale abuse of govenmental police power in the first place.

Two other tangential points. First, interestingly, although she admits that the defendants' conduct was highly reprehensible, and also affirms the jury's actual (compensatory) damage awards that total $500,000, Justice Haller simultaneously reverses the jury's $4,000,000 punitive damages award as constitutionally excessive. Such an award, which involves an 8-1 ratio, would facially seem permissible. But not only does Justice Haller hold that it's constitutionally excessive, but further holds that the maximum permissible punitive damages award would total $55,000 -- in other words, that a ratio of appoximately 1-10 would be the most allowed by the Constitution!

This is a fairly novel holding. Although I appreciate (and agree with) her view that the salary of the individual defendant is relevant to the permissible amount of punitive damages, I'm not at all sure that I agree that when a defendant deliberately and repeatedly abuses his power to violate critical constitutional liberties (and also causes a half-million dollars in actual damages), the Constitution definitively says that the defendant can -- at the absolute extreme -- only be ordered to pay six months of his salary in punitive damages. That just strikes me as a bit wrong.

Less importantly, on page nine of the opinion, the word "citation" ends in an n. Let's catch those typos in published opinions, my friend.

An interesting opinion, to be sure.