The Baton Rouge Police Department says it is disappointed with Thursday’s verdict in a federal police brutality trial against two officers and the city stemming from a beating and strip search of a New Orleans man during a 2014 marijuana raid.
But the department believes the $25,000 awarded to Brett Percle, 24, is “a victory for the taxpayers,” considering Percle initially asked for $500,000 to settle the suit, said police spokesman Lt. Jonathan Dunnam.
“We feel that our officers acted within the bounds of the law,” Dunnam said.
Percle’s lawyer, Kearney Loughlin, declined to confirm the half-million dollar figure.
A seven-person jury in Baton Rouge unanimously said “yes” to the questions of whether Cpl. Robert Moruzzi used excessive force and committed assault and battery on Percle, who testified Moruzzi stomped on his head and neck and knocked his teeth out as he lay prone on a tile floor during a Special Response Team raid on June 11, 2014. The jury also said “yes” to the assertion that Detective Jason Acree violated Percle’s Fourth Amendment rights in authorizing a strip and body cavity search that day.
The raid didn’t ultimately result in any charges, and Percle was never arrested or accused of any crimes.
Percle said he felt vindicated the jury, which was gridlocked at one point during a full day of deliberations, agreed with his principal claims and is happy to be able to pay for some of his medical and dental expenses.
“The truth came out,” he said Thursday after the verdict.
The jury also affirmed that the city acted with “deliberate indifference” in allowing a practice of strip-searching detainees regardless of whether a specific warrant exists for that act. Acree, in his testimony, said it’s not uncommon for him to perform strip searches on detainees who might end up being jailed and said his rationale was that jail personnel perform the searches at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison.
Tedrick Knightshead, a lawyer in the city-parish attorney’s office defending Moruzzi, Acree and the city, said Friday he is not sure if he will appeal the verdict.
The civil trial in the U.S. Middle District of Louisiana exposed some of the habits of officers — and their knowledge of the law and their departments’ own policies — not commonly accessible in such a public way.
Both Acree and Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr. testified they didn’t know, and couldn’t summarize, any department policy on strip or body cavity searches.
U.S. Middle District Judge Shelly Dick stated from the bench that based on testimony, it appears there aren’t any specific department polices on those searches.
But two days after receiving a request for any such guideline, department legal representative Kim Brooks on Friday released the department’s “search of persons” protocol, which appears to show Acree’s actions were a violation of policy.
According to the document, strip searches require “articulate, reasonable suspicion that this particular arrestee may have weapons or contraband on his person.”
The policy also says strip searches before arrests are made only “in very rare instances,” and they require a specific warrant or consent to search, which Acree did not have in Percle’s case.
Further, body cavity searches, which Percle says he underwent, also require a separate warrant and must be only done by medical professionals, which can include deputy coroners, the policy says.
The warrant Acree wrote that gave rise to his encounter with Percle authorized a search of the residence of 1486 Lila Ave., “including all structures, vehicles, and other places of concealment on the premises where the thing(s) specified may be found located.”
Dabadie said he thinks his officers were in compliance with the warrant; however, Percle argued the invasive strip and cavity search required a warrant specific to him. He was not the target of the underlying warrant, nor was he known to officers at the time of the raid on the house, which he was visiting at the time.
Dunnam said the department is constantly reviewing its policies, procedures and training and will make changes if necessary.
Chris Stewart, Baton Rouge police union president, said he had no comment on the outcome of the trial.
Knightshead said Thursday he believed the trial showed the city takes a “hard-line” stance against anyone who accuses officers.
“Any time anyone says an officer did or does something, obviously it makes the news,” he said. “So I think the city’s position now is to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to fight back. You come after the police, and we’re gonna deal with you. We’re gonna bring you to court, and we’re gonna make you prove your case.’ ”
Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.