LOS ANGELES -- A federal jury awarded nearly $1 million Wednesday to three Hispanic men, finding their civil rights were violated by San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies accused of brutality and unlawful arrest.
The jury found that Deputy Mark Swagger and sergeants John Gocke and Tim Miller apparently used excessive force in the arrests on June 30, 1988, after an all-night party in Victorville.
The jury absolved two other lawmen, deputies Paul Schmidt and Joe Lee Phillips, and rejected claims by two other plaintiffs who testified that they also were brutalized in the incident.
The plaintiffs, Auro Ruiz, Efran Serrano and his son, Victor, were awarded a total of $956,000 in damages, including thousands of dollars in punitive awards that the lawmen might be forced to personally pay unless the county does so.
The jury deliberated two days before reaching its decision.
The focus of the three-week trial was a neighbor's videotape of the incident, which began with a complaint about a loud, drunken party. The plaintiffs testified that the deputies used fists, batons, elbows and chokeholds to break up their party.
The plaintiffs' lawyer, Stephen Yagman, said he plans to pursue the second phase of the lawsuit, which names San Bernardino County and Sheriff Floyd Tidwell as defendants. 'We've gotten a metaphoric judgement against some corporals, and we're going on to the general,' he said.
Yagman contends the Sheriff's Department under Tidwell maintains a policy of excessive force. The lawyer has also accused the department of covering up civil rights violations in the Victorville incident by clearing the deputies of misconduct before the department knew of the videotape's existence.
Defense lawyer David Lawrence said he was disappointed by the verdict and said an appeal was likely, citing possible legal grounds in 'the controversy surrounding the videotape and whether or not that's admissible evidence.'
The case of the so-called 'Victorville Five' is probably the first in which a videotape has been used as evidence in a police brutality lawsuit, Yagman said.
The four-minute video apparently depicts the deputies striking the men, all Mexican nationals, with batons and kicking them while they were down.
In closing arguments, Yagman portrayed the deputies as 'tyrants' and urged the jury to award the plaintiffs more than $6 million in damages for alleged indignities and injuries they sustained in the arrests.
'Sometimes the tree of liberty has to be nourished by the blood of a few tyrants,' Yagman told the jury.
He also compared the deputies' behavior to that of Nazis, members of the Ku Klux Klan and the devil.
Lawrence argued that none of the plaintiffs suffered serious injuries, and noted that one of the plaintiffs, Jose Serrano, was found in possession of cocaine after his arrest.
Serrano, who did not prevail in the suit against the deputies, faces trial on misdemeanor charges, including resisting arrest. The drug possession charges against him were dropped after he participated in a drug treatment program.
Lawrence also said the level of force used by the deputies was warranted because they were trying to subdue combative men who had been drinking for more than 12 hours in their front yard.