I was having cocktails at one of those nice new places on 1604 when a friend came over and asked me what was up. I told him the federal court had gone against me on some rulings in my Taser case. He looked at me like I had downed a few too many “two for ones,” and said, “Tim, what the hell are you doing messing with those cases? Civil rights? Who the hell cares if the cops kill some guy on the South Side?”
I got the bartender’s attention and indicated that in short order my martini had an excellent chance of being half empty. What the hell am I doing messing with civil-rights cases? Suing cops in San Antonio, Texas? Truth be told, nobody outside of Sergio Galvan’s family cared how or why he died. The court was probably going to toss it before a jury could even hear the facts. But I thought I really had a shot with this one. Then again, I thought I had a shot at my last one.
A couple years back, a client got himself into some trouble on the East Side. He had a drug problem, and one night he was pulled over by two patrol cops. He had some rock cocaine on him, and he panicked — he ate the drugs while the police were attempting to arrest him. He got a little scuffed, and the police had to take him to get some medical treatment before he could be arraigned. The police knew he had eaten the drugs, but they decided that he looked OK and that they would take him to the minor-care clinic located at the old Brady Green.
On the way over, my client wasn’t doing so good. He began to hallucinate and complain of pain, and when he got to the clinic, he couldn’t walk up the stairs. A real hospital with an emergency room was less than a mile away. But the police grabbed my client, literally dragged him up the stairs, and said to the nurse, “Well, he might have taken some drugs.” Only problem was that the clinic wasn’t equipped to handle drug overdoses. In fact, the director of the clinic said he had met with the SAPD and told them not to bring overdose cases to the clinic because they weren’t staffed for them.
Within an hour, Carl O’Neil died, handcuffed and shackled to a wheelchair.
When I deposed a police captain for the lawsuit, I asked why is it that cops have to diagnose whether a suspect is at risk of dying from a drug overdose? Why not just take everyone to the ER in case something does go wrong? He paused a moment, and said that the city had — ah, well — changed its policy: The police were taking all drug cases to the ER. Why? “It’s my understanding that it is because of this lawsuit.”
Summary judgment was granted for the city anyway.
My Taser client had returned home after working the 3-11 p.m. shift. He popped a couple of Buds, had some dinner, and sat down at his computer to download some music. He also did something really stupid: He snorted a couple lines of cocaine. For reasons that to this day no one knows, he had one hell of a weird reaction. He became paranoid, saying people were after him; he called 911 three times and hung up. Bad deal. He left his house and started walking down the street, yelling “Help me!” The police showed up, and his wife told them she thought Sergio had done some coke. Off they went: They confronted my client, and according to the officers’ story, a mighty battle ensued before they were finally able to get Sergio to the ground. It was only then that they used the Taser. Four times. After he was on the ground.
Shortly thereafter, Sergio died, face down, hands cuffed behind his back.
The police said they did it all by the book. But after we took a few depositions and did a little digging, the officers’ version of events just didn’t add up. For example, they said that Sergio had superhuman strength and was even able to take a pepper-spray canister away from a 6-foot-4-inch, 260-pound patrol officer. Yet, shortly after this epic encounter, both patrolmen were photographed. Not a hair out of place. One of them was even smiling.
When the expert for the city, Dr. Vincent Di Maio, and the Bexar County Medical Examiner, Dr. Kimberly Molina, were deposed, they testified that there was no evidence of a violent struggle. None.
I went to the property room to see the pepper-spray canister. I figured that if Sergio had grabbed the spray, his prints would have to be on it. But it was wiped clean, no fingerprint powder on it at all. When I deposed the city’s fingerprint guy and the investigating detective, both said there was no reason for it to have been wiped off — they had never seen such a thing in all their years on the force. There were many other things that just didn’t make sense in this case, but in the end it didn’t matter.
I think I was at the Palm, having Tammy pour me a tankard of cool ale, when I read in the paper that the City had changed its Taser policy. No longer were the police allowed to use a Taser when they knew someone was on drugs. Too dangerous, too many unknowns.
On November 23, the federal court granted summary judgment against us.
I should have just let it drop. Case over, move on. No one cares about civil rights. Nobody wins an appeal from a summary judgment. But I just couldn’t let it go. So I filed the appeal to the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans, and damned if they didn’t grant me an oral argument. On January 7, Sergio’s case was heard. I have no idea how the court will rule, but I felt it was a good way to end my career as a civil-rights attorney.
I told my staff, no more civil-rights cases. I had invested almost 80 grand of my firm’s money and countless hours in discovery, briefing, depositions, motions. I was out.
Then a few days ago I got call from a buddy who is a criminal-defense lawyer. He said he had a case for me. I stopped him. I don’t do civil-rights cases anymore, done, finito.
“She was raped by an on-duty cop. They indicted him.”
“Did you send a letter to the City?”
“What was their response?”
“Nothing. Not a word.”
“Let me guess, your client has a little street on her?”
“More than a little. What does it matter?”
“Not a damn bit. Bring her in Monday.”
I know I’m going to regret it. But if things like this really don’t matter anymore, we truly have lost our way. I’ll keep you posted. •
Yes, that Tim Maloney. Look for his next column in the March 3 Current.