Nearly two years since a Baton Rouge police officer was accused of kicking the head of a New Orleans man and knocking out his teeth during a police raid, an eyewitness described the ordeal Monday on the first day of a federal civil rights trial in the case.
Cpl. Robert Moruzzi was one of several officers in the Baton Rouge Police Department’s Special Response Team who burst into a house just outside Baton Rouge on June 11, 2014, and manhandled its occupants, forcing them to submit to a humiliating strip and cavity search, according to a lawsuit Brett Percle filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana, resulting in the trial to be heard through at least Wednesday.
Moruzzi, who was fired in 2010 after an off-duty fight and rehired the same year, now sits on the fire and police civil service board, which hears appeals by officers contesting firings or discipline.
“Something hit the back of Brett’s head, a foot or a gun, and ‘boom,’ and blood starts coming out of his mouth,” testified 24-year-old Bernard Sharkey, a friend of Percle’s who was at the house during the episode at 1486 Lila Ave., just outside Baton Rouge city limits.
Sharkey, testifying before a seven-member jury in Judge Shelly D. Dick’s courtroom, said he’d barely arrived about 2 or 2:30 p.m. to the house, where a bag of marijuana was sitting on a table, when the door was busted open by police in helmets and eyemasks pointing high-powered rifles. The lawmen also detonated a flash bomb inside the residence, Sharkey said.
The team was there to carry out a search warrant in the belief marijuana was being sold from the house, said Tedrick K. Knightshead, a lawyer representing Moruzzi, the city of Baton Rouge, Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr. and Jason Acree, the supervising detective during the raid.
Sharkey said he and the house’s other occupants, some of whom were his friends and may have been smoking marijuana from a large bong, immediately dropped to the ground in compliance with the officers’ orders.
Sharkey wound up lying prone looking at Percle, whose head was face-down on the ground and about a foot from his own. Sharkey testified he saw Percle’s head get shoved onto the floor, resulting in what Percle says were knocked-out or damaged teeth.
“I know the officer did something,” Sharkey said.
Sharkey said that after he and others were handcuffed, officers “ransacked” the house. The board game Monopoly was spread out on a table, and at one point, Sharkey said, an officer picked up a “get out of jail free” card and taunted, “Does anyone wanna get out of jail?”
At least one officer also started playing on a drum set inside the house and Acree, the supervisor, ridiculed Percle’s wounded mouth, saying, “He must not floss. He must not take care of his teeth. He looks like a jack-o’-lantern,” said Percle’s lawyer, Kearney S. Loughlin, in an opening statement.
Neither Sharkey nor Percle faced any charges by the end of the raid. The ordeal netted a few ounces of marijuana and $1,600 in cash. Though two men were arrested, their cases were dismissed and no one was ultimately charged in the case.
Knightshead denied that Moruzzi stepped on Percle’s head and said any force used by officers during the event was reasonable and lawful.
Knightshead also claimed Percle had been having a lot of financial problems and suggested the entire case is about money.
Though a judge signed the warrant justifying officers’ search of the house in what Percle argues was a “low-level” drug case — a characterization defendants contest — Percle says officers illegally searched his car and forced him and others to take off their clothes so their genitals could be probed.
Dabadie, the police chief, testified he didn’t know and couldn’t paraphrase the department’s policy on strip searches, but said certain types of searches may be reasonable “given the totality of circumstances.”
The case shines a light not only on police use of force but on the complaints process for investigations of officer conduct, as well as the department’s hiring and firing practices.
Percle, 24, says that after the raid, he was told by Baton Rouge police officials to contact an internal affairs manager, Cpl. Orscini Beard II. But after calling Beard several times and leaving messages, he never got a response, he alleges. As a result, no internal complaint file exists against Moruzzi in the case, and no internal investigation was done.
Dabadie acknowledged on the stand that in order for a formal complaint to be lodged, complaints must typically be made in person. However, if a complainant isn’t given those instructions, it’s unlikely he or she would know how to properly file a complaint, he conceded.
In a perplexing trial moment, Dabadie testified he found out about the case against Moruzzi and himself only on Sunday when he was told about it by Knightshead, despite being a named defendant in the matter, which was filed in 2014 and has been publicized in the news media. Dabadie, in an interview after the proceedings ended, said he and the department are sued frequently and he doesn’t keep track of all the allegations against his officers.
Dabadie, who has been chief for three years, also testified he’s never glanced at Moruzzi’s personnel file, even though the corporal had been fired by a different chief the year after Moruzzi was hired in 2008 following an off-duty fight outside the downtown bar Roux House.
In that incident, Moruzzi was accused of pulling down a sign outside the bar and yelling at the bar’s manager, “You can’t stop me!”
Moruzzi, whose handgun emerged during the fight, was accused of punching the manager several times in the face and threatening to kill him, according to 2014 article in The Advocate. Moruzzi ultimately had battery and assault counts against him dismissed after participating in a pretrial diversion program, and he appealed his firing to the civil service board and won his spot back as an officer in 2010.
About six months ago, Moruzzi was elected by his fellow officers to the same board that allowed him a second chance at his job, said Baton Rouge police spokesman Cpl. L’Jean McKneely. Dabadie said he has no say in appointments to the civil service board.
Moruzzi was a part-time member of the SRT team during the event involving Percle, but just a month later, on July 24, 2014, Dabadie promoted Moruzzi to a full-time SRT member.
Part of Percle’s claim is that hiring and training of officers in the Baton Rouge Police Department appears to be deficient. Dabadie said he supervises 650 commissioned officers and that many promotions are done at the recommendation of unit commanders.
One issue expected to resurface is whether Moruzzi, who apparently carried a commission to practice as a police officer only within city limits, was acting lawfully by being part of a raid just outside city limits.
Dabadie testified he believes as long as an SRT member with a dual commission — the authorization to make arrests in the city and in the parish — is present at the time of a joint effort, all the officers involved do not need to have a dual commission.
Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.