The chief federal trial judge in Washington on Tuesday rejected the District of Columbia's demand for a new trial in a false arrest case and also upheld the jury's damages award.
A jury in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in March sided against the District and awarded $97,500 in damages to the plaintiff, Lindsay Huthnance, who said police detained her after she publicly criticized them.
Police arrested Huthnance in November 2005 on a disorderly conduct charge. Huthnance said she was a victim of “contempt of cop,” saying the authorities did not have cause to arrest her but did so only because she criticized them. The jury found the city and two officers liable.
Lawyers for the city urged Chief Judge Royce Lamberth of Washington federal district court to grant a new trial for several reasons, including the judge’s decision to allow, and to deny, certain evidence. Lamberth excluded from trial, for instance, a 2005 lesson plan that police used to train recruits on disorderly conduct arrests.
A spokesman for the D.C. Office of the Attorney General, Ariel Waldman, senior counsel to Attorney General Irvin Nathan, said the city is reviewing Lamberth’s decision. The city could ultimately ask the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to review the case.
Lamberth also said the jury’s compensatory damages were not excessive and that there was enough evidence to support punitive damages. The jury, the judge said, appeared to carefully weigh the evidence, assessing liability on two officers but not a third.
“If they were really inflamed with passion against the District and the officers, then they would have blindly gone after all of them instead of carefully allotting specific liability and damages to each officer,” Lamberth said in his 48-page ruling.
A lawyer for Huthnance, Jeffrey Skinner, an associate in the Washington office of Goodwin Procter, said Lamberth correctly upheld the jury’s finding the District was “deliberately indifferent” to Huthnance’s rights. “We’re extremely pleased with the ruling,” Skinner said. “We believe it came out where it should have.”
Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area, which assisted in the trial, said the city’s liability for legal fees will likely increase if the District appeals. (The ACLU put Huthnance in touch, after her arrest, with Goodwin Procter. The firm handled the case pro bono.)
“Attorney General Nathan complains about how attorneys' fees are sucking the city dry,” Spitzer said. “The city could have settled this case years ago for a small fraction of what it will cost them now. And they could settle it now for a lot less than it will cost them if they appeal.”