Baton Rouge Police chief Carl Dabadie Jr. is no longer a defendant in a civil police brutality case after a federal judge Wednesday agreed there is no evidence the chief had any direct involvement in or knowledge of his officers’ alleged wrongdoing.
Cpl. Robert Moruzzi is accused of slamming a New Orleans man’s face into a tile floor, causing damage to the man’s teeth, during a June 11, 2014, raid to carry out a search warrant for marijuana sales. Detective Jason Acree, the supervising officer during the raid involving masked officers with high-powered rifles, is accused of authorizing what the plaintiff, Brett Percle, says was an unconstitutional strip search of his body cavities.
The jury trial, which began Monday and is expected to end Thursday, has raised questions about the Baton Rouge Police department’s policy, or lack thereof, involving strip searches. It’s also illuminated issues about the department’s personnel management and its procedure for residents to file internal affairs complaints about alleged police misconduct.
Another reason for dismissing Dabadie from the case was that he didn’t appear to act with “deliberate indifference” in managing his officers after the raid, said U.S. District Court Judge Shelly D. Dick, citing Dabadie’s testimony Monday that he only learned about the case on Sunday.
Dabadie has been a named defendant in the widely-publicized case — which is also against Moruzzi, Acree and the City of Baton Rouge — since it was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana in July 2014.
Dabadie, who has promoted Moruzzi since the raid, also testified he’s never glanced at the corporal’s personnel file even though Moruzzi was fired by a different chief after an off-duty bar fight and re-hired after winning an appeal to the civil service board.
Moruzzi, who now sits on the fire and police civil service board, was also the subject of a federal excessive force suit stemming from a stun gun incident in 2013, but the case was dismissed last year. Lawyers for both parties declined to explain why the case was canceled.
Tedrick K. Knightshead, a lawyer representing defendants on behalf of the city-parish attorney’s office, said he could not comment on why he apparently only notified Dabadie about the case on Sunday.
Two other officers involved in the raid on 1486 Lila Ave., where Percle was spending time with his friends at the time of the mid-afternoon sweep, testified Wednesday they did not see Moruzzi stomp on Percle in any way.
Jerry Michael Walker Jr., a member of the department’s Special Response Team, said when he entered the residence, Percle failed to follow officers’ instructions to drop to the floor, and instead remained in a chair, screaming uncontrollably.
“I’d never seen anyone act that way,” Walker said, in testimony echoing Moruzzi’s a day earlier.
Percle has testified he immediately descended to the floor and was lying face-down before Moruzzi stomped on his head and neck area, which whacked out a front tooth and damaged others. Defendants have claimed Percle must have accidentally knocked out his own teeth.
Percle now has a bridge in place of four teeth.
Walker said that at some point Percle lunged forward and “he slipped face-first into the tile.”
Detective Richard McCloskey, another SRT officer, said Percle “appeared to dive toward the ground.”
“I could hear screeching like I’ve never heard before,” McCloskey said of entering the home and encountering Percle.
McCloskey said he noticed a tooth on the ground before Moruzzi knelt down to handcuff Percle.
“I was like, ‘Man, that guy knocked out his tooth,’” McCloskey said.
Defendants maintain the red mark on Percle’s neck region, shown in a photograph, came from Moruzzi’s knee as he held him down to be handcuffed.
Percle acknowledged suffering from depression and staying overnight in a hospital in the days just before the raid in the hopes of speaking to a doctor about his mental health.
Percle sobbed on the stand as his lawyer, Kearney S. Loughlin, played the 9-1-1 call his client made the day of the raid just after it happened. On the call, Percle told the operator he had just been stomped on by officers in military gear and asked for an ambulance for his injuries.
Defendants presented evidence showing Percle refused some of the medical care he was offered, including at the emergency room at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center. Percle, 24, who said he’s struggled financially juggling jobs and school, said he was afraid he’d be charged for unnecessary care after the health professionals he saw that day said they couldn’t fix his teeth and could only treat his pain.
Defendants have suggested Percle is fabricating his claims in the hopes of winning money in the lawsuit.
In addition to the alleged stomping, one of the more significant claims of Percle’s, according to the judge, involves the strip search. Dick, the judge, said she found problematic Acree’s testimony that it’s a common practice for him and possibly other officers to perform strip searches on people being detained.
In Percle’s case, Acree did not have a warrant to search Percle’s body. The warrant that gave rise to the raid authorized a search of the house but did not specify Percle, Acree said.
The presence of marijuana near Percle did not constitute probable cause for ordering Percle to undress so his private parts could be searched, Dick said.
Acree testified Tuesday that though he’s unaware of any specific department policy on strip searches, he believes he’s allowed to perform the body exams since new arrestees are subject to strip searches by personnel at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison.
Five men at the Lila Avenue home, including Percle, all of whom were near marijuana on at least one table, had their genitals searched, but only two were arrested. No charges were filed in the case after the two arrestees participated in a pretrial diversion program, said East Baton Rouge Parish First Assistant District Attorney Tracey Barbera. Police seized about $1,600 in cash and a few ounces of marijuana in the raid.
Whoever owned the cash may file a claim to try to recover the money, Barbera said.
Dabadie testified Monday he was not aware of any specific policy on strip-searches. Department spokesman Lt. Jonathan Dunnam said the agency has policy on searches generally. A request to department legal representative Kim Brooks asking for any policy relevant to strip or cavity searches went unanswered Wednesday.
Dick said the law “gave police no authority whatsoever to search Percle’s body.”
“Given the widespread use of this procedure, a reasonable jury could conclude that the city should have known about this custom,” said Dick, citing Acree’s rationale for performing strip searches. Dick said a jury could reason that the practice, even though it’s not formalized in writing, is common enough that it could represent a de-facto policy of the department.
Knightshead denied that Acree was trying to characterize the department’s overall practices.
An internal affairs investigator — whom Percle says failed to assist him in making a use of force complaint — also testified Wednesday.
Cpl. Orscini Beard II said he spoke briefly to Percle, who in turn said it was a bad time to talk but that he would call back. Beard, who said he did not hear the substance of Percle’s allegations, said he made a typed documentation of his phone calls.
But Percle said Beard never returned any of his several calls or messages, presenting his Sprint phone bill to show calls he made to the number for the Baton Rouge Police Department’s internal affairs office.
No internal affairs investigation of Percle’s claim was ever performed, said Dunnam, since there is no documentation of any such complaint.
Dunnam also said it’s unlikely that Dabadie would initiate his own internal investigation into Percle’s allegations, citing the lapse of a 60-day window for starting such a probe after the chief or his representative find out about a complaint.
“I am not sure what new information has been gleaned from the testimony so far that would indicate that the officer acted outside of his scope of duties,” Dunnam said in an email Wednesday morning.
Dunnam said people make allegations against the police frequently, and that certain serious claims like Percle’s need to be made in person because they must be notarized.
The jury of seven — comprised of people from Baton Rouge and nearby parishes — is expected to deliver a verdict Thursday.
Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.