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Tacoma must pay, court says

Judges uphold $138,000 jury award to woman whose rights police violated

KAREN HUCKS; The News Tribune
Published: November 15th, 2006 01:00 AM

A Tacoma woman should receive a $138,000 jury award for damages she suffered when Tacoma police officers violated her rights and used excessive force against her six years ago, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit released an opinion Monday that upheld a March 2005 verdict in favor of Susan Frunz.

Three Tacoma police officers – Sgt. Alan Morris, Sgt. Gary Stril and officer David Alred – broke into Frunz’s home in November 2000. They pointed a gun in her face, demanded to know who she was, ordered her to the floor, told her to shut up, handcuffed her and searched her house – all without a warrant. Then they didn’t arrest anyone or file a report.

The opinion, written by 9th Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski, called the facts in the case “remarkable.”

“As the officers doubtless knew, physical entry into the home is the ‘chief evil against which the wording of the Fourth Amendment is directed,’” Kozinski wrote, quoting from a 1972 decision.

The jury award, which the city must pay, included punitive damages against all three officers.

The appeals court said only misguided optimism would lead the City of Tacoma to appeal the jury’s unanimous verdict.

“Surely, the citizens of Tacoma would not want to be treated in their own homes the way the jury found officers Stril, Morris and Alred treated Frunz and her guests,” Kozinski wrote. “A prompt payment of the verdict, accompanied by a letter of apology from the city fathers and mothers, might have been a more appropriate response to the jury’s collective wisdom.”

The court also gave the city two weeks to provide a reason why it shouldn’t have to pay double court costs and attorneys’ fees for filing a frivolous appeal.

City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli said the city hasn’t evaluated whether to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, and is focused on responding to the issue of whether the appeal was frivolous.

“Just in general, this office is very mindful of the requirement that anything you bring before the court has to be well-grounded in fact and law, and that’s certainly the standard we applied in this case,” she said.

It all began Nov. 18, 2000, when a neighbor called 911 to report seeing Frunz in the house in the 1700 block of South 40th Street.

The neighbor said a restraining order barred Frunz from entering the house, but the officers didn’t check to see if that were true before breaking into the house.

Frunz was getting divorced at the time but couldn’t convince police that a court had awarded the house to her.

During trial in front of U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton, the city argued that officers had a right to enter the home without a warrant because they thought a crime – burglary – might have been in progress.

The three officers still work for the department. There was no internal investigation of the incident, Pauli said.

Karen Hucks: 253-597-8660

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