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Jury quickly rejects civil suit against police officers

A jury has rejected a civil suit brought by a Claremont resident who claimed two police officers violated his first and fourth amendment rights.

The ruling on February 26 after a four-day trial marks the end of a years-long saga that began with a 2013 incident involving William Fitch, who claimed officers Hector Tamayo and Karlan Bennett wrongfully entered his property without a search warrant to check on 19-year-old Amber Prieto, who was allegedly drunk in his back yard.

Attorney Jerry Steering, who represented Mr. Fitch, alleged in the suit, first filed on October 9, 2014, that his client’s fourth amendment rights were violated after Det. Tamayo and Lt. Bennett unlawfully entered his property to speak with Ms. Prieto. The situation escalated after Mr. Fitch, who was 59 years old at the time, asked the officers if they had a search warrant to enter his property.

Mr. Fitch was seeking $40 million in damages, according to court documents.

Mr. Fitch also sued for malicious prosecution, intentional infliction of emotional distress, false arrest and imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligence stemming from the later arrest and subsequent criminal trial following the incident at Mr. Fitch’s home.

When reached for comment, Mr. Steering expressed disappointment with the case’s outcome, claiming the case was stacked against his client from the beginning.

“It was a very clear violation of his constitutional rights, but it doesn’t matter if no one cares about them,” Mr. Steering said.

Attorney Scott Grossberg, who represented the officers, lauded the jury’s decision.

“We are very pleased that they jury did the right thing,” he said. “My clients are ecstatic that they are vindicated.”

The incident happened on the evening of October 13, 2013, when Mr. Fitch and a friend were watching a football game at Mr. Fitch’s house on the 3000 block of Landsbury Avenue. Mr. Fitch’s son and a few of his friends, including Ms. Prieto, were hanging out in the back yard. At some point during the evening, Mr. Fitch’s son and friends left, leaving Ms. Prieto behind.

“I asked her, ‘Amber, where are you going? Because you had been drinking and it’s really kind of getting late. I don’t want to see any harm come to you,’” Mr. Fitch testified during his criminal trial. 

Mr. Fitch, a lieutenant colonel in the army and the ROTC recruiter for Claremont McKenna College, then drove Ms. Prieto to Pomona to try and find her home, according to court records. He stopped briefly at a 7-11 convenience store in Pomona. A few minutes later, he pulled into the AM/PM ARCO gas station at 2510 N. Towne Ave. in Pomona to allow Ms. Prieto to use the restroom and to put $10 of gas in his car. Mr. Fitch said Ms. Prieto was too drunk to give him an accurate address, so he drove her back to his home, according to testimony.

A clerk from the AM/PM who was concerned about Ms. Prieto’s level of intoxication and that she appeared to be underage, called the Claremont police, giving them Mr. Fitch’s license plate number. Claremont police then tracked the car to Mr. Fitch’s home.

Det. Tamayo was first to arrive to Mr. Fitch’s home, and asked Mr. Fitch if he could speak with Ms. Prieto. Det. Tamayo stated in court transcripts that, based on the description from the gas station clerk, he saw Ms. Prieto wandering around the house. Mr. Fitch claimed Ms. Prieto didn’t want to speak with the officer, according to court documents.

When Det. Tamayo pressed the issue and asked if he could enter the home, Mr. Fitch refused then asked Det. Tamayo if he had a search warrant.

“I took a couple of steps forward,” Det. Tamayo testified. “I told him that I needed to speak with her. I was a little more stern about it, and the defendant told me I was not going to go into his house. He asked me if I had a search warrant. I didn’t, but I wasn’t going to leave until I spoke with her.”

According to Det. Tamayo’s incident report, Mr. Fitch said, “She doesn’t want to come out.” Not knowing Ms. Prieto’s age or identity, Det. Tamayo emphasized that he wanted to speak to her to determine if she needed medical assistance. Mr. Fitch again told the detective to get a search warrant if he wanted to go inside. He then closed the front door.

Detective Tamayo reported that he had called for police back-up and, while waiting for an officer to arrive, heard “a noise in the backyard that sounded like someone had tripped over empty cans and bottles,” according to court records.

The detective then accessed Mr. Fitch’s property from the side yard and saw Ms. Prieto “laying partially curled up and face down on top of a cooler and a box.” Mr. Fitch then came outside through a sliding glass door to tell the officers to leave and get a search warrant.

Det. Tamayo and Lt. Bennett then woke up Ms. Prieto, who was unable to stand on her own, according to the police report. The suit alleges that Det. Tamayo and Lt. Bennett handcuffed Ms. Prieto and made her answer questions “against her will.” The officers say she was handcuffed to keep her from falling and harming herself.

According to a transcript of the recording, Ms. Prieto was unable to answer basic questions about where she was, how she got there or where she lived. Officers determined she was too intoxicated to remain on the property and transported her to Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center for treatment. No charges were filed against Ms. Prieto.

Mr. Fitch was not arrested that evening but, on November 21, 2013, he received a letter from Claremont Police Lt. James Hughes stating he would be charged with two misdemeanors—delaying a peace officer and unlawful sale/furnishing alcohol to a minor. Mr. Fitch turned himself in on December 17, 2014 and was released after being booked, photographed and fingerprinted.

Mr. Fitch pleaded not guilty on December 18, 2014 and represented himself during the criminal trial the following February. He was acquitted on all counts on February 13, 2013, according to court records.

Mr. Fitch then brought the civil complaint, alleging a string of civil rights violations committed by Det. Tamayo, Lt. Hughes, Lt. Bennett and the city of Claremont. The city of Claremont and Lt. Hughes were dropped as defendants on December 8, 2015.

“Because [Mr. Fitch] challenged, questioned and protested the defendant officers’ actions, and in retaliation for his exercise of his first amendment and fourth amendment rights, [Tamayo, Hughes, Bennett and the city of Claremont] entered into a conspiracy to falsely arrest and maliciously prosecute [Mr. Fitch], which they did,” the suit alleged.

The jury did not agree, stating in their special verdict that Det. Tamayo and Lt. Bennett had grounds to believe there was an emergency at hand, and did not violate his rights.

An offer for settlement from the city on January 13, 2016 was rejected by Mr. Fitch’s attorney. Mr. Steering wrote, “I just don’t see settlement in this case.”

Attorney’s fees for the city totaled $134,980, which has been paid in full by the California Joint Powers Insurance Authority (CJPIA), according to Claremont City Clerk Shelley Desautels.

—Matthew Bramlett

news@claremont-courier.com

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