Federal jury rules in favor of speeding motorcyclist, against Oregon State … – The Register-Guard
A federal jury on Thursday ruled that Oregon State Police Capt. Rob Edwards violated a Eugene man’s civil rights by kicking him in the upper chest after chasing down his speeding motorcycle on Crow Road.
The eight-member jury heard evidence in a trial in U.S. District Court in Eugene earlier this week, and spent about four hours Thursday deliberating before returning a verdict that supports Justin Wilkens’ excessive-force claim in regard to the kick.
Wilkens was awarded more than $180,000 in total damages.
Jurors additionally determined that Edwards acted with negligence when his police car rear-ended Wilkens’ motorcycle, but ruled that the veteran state trooper did not violate Wilkens’ rights by pointing a gun at him and using force to handcuff and then pull Wilkens to his feet.
Wilkens suffered a broken left clavicle, a fractured rib and other injuries in the Aug. 3, 2012, incident.
“I’m just happy as heck,” Wilkens, 41, said as he left the courthouse moments after U.S. Magistrate Judge Tom Coffin read the verdict.
Edwards declined comment, and one of his lawyers — state Assistant Attorney General Dirk Pierson — said he was not authorized to speak on the case.
State police, in a statement released Thursday night, said the agency “is disappointed with the (trial) outcome and feels the actions of our troopers clearly did not violate established procedures or tactics. In situations like these, officers have milliseconds to make what may be life-or-death decisions and those officers should be shielded from the liability of civil damages.”
State Department of Justice spokeswoman Kristina Edmunson, meanwhile, did not directly respond to a question regarding a potential appeal but said Thursday in a statement that officials in her office “respect today’s decision, and we are assessing our next steps.”
The jury awarded Wilkens more than $31,000 in economic damages to reimburse his medical expenses and motorcycle repair bills; $100,000 in noneconomic damages for his injuries, pain and suffering; and $50,000 in punitive damages.
Wilkens’ attorney, Lauren Regan of Eugene, said the award of punitive damages signals that the jury felt Edwards used “malice” in dealing with Wilkens.
“It’s a message from the community,” she said.
Punitive damages are intended to discourage a defendant and others in similar positions from engaging in conduct that has prompted a lawsuit.
Regan, executive director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Eugene, said police agencies typically pay damages in cases where individual officers are found to have used excessive force against citizens.
The key piece of evidence in Wilkens’ case was a recording of the incident captured by an in-car video system in Edwards’ unmarked police vehicle. According to trial testimony, Edwards did not know the unmarked Chevrolet Camaro he was driving at the time was equipped with the video system.
The video, which Regan released to The Register-Guard Thursday after the verdict, was played a number of times for the jury during the three-day trial. It shows Wilkens’ motorcycle speeding past Edwards’ unmarked car, and then passing two other vehicles in no-passing zones on Crow Road. Edwards gave chase but Wilkens did not immediately stop. The motorcyclist finally pulled over when he reached the intersection of Crow Road and Highway 126 in Veneta.
Almost immediately after Wilkens stopped, the Camaro rear-ended his motorcycle while traveling at a low speed. Wilkens fell, then got up and saw Edwards pointing a gun at him.
Edwards then kicked Wilkens in the upper chest as the motorcyclist slowly complied with commands to get onto the ground.
Edwards testified at trial that his actions were consistent with state police policy and training. State police investigated the incident and determined that the force used by Edwards was justified, and the Lane County District Attorney’s Office validated that ruling, District Attorney Patty Perlow told The Register-Guard on Thursday.
Edwards acknowledged in his testimony that Wilkens had begun to comply with his commands when he landed the kick, but said he was unable to stop the kick because he “already had the muscles fired” in his right leg.
Edwards also said he accidentally “bumped” the back end of Wilkens’ motorcycle as a result of possible “brake fade” — a term used to describe the loss of braking power because of overheating. But Regan reminded jurors in a closing argument that a brake expert testified at trial that brake fade rarely occurs in modern brake systems.
Edwards — who, according to trial testimony, received a written reprimand for neglecting to report his use of force against Wilkens to his direct supervisor in a telephone conversation shortly after the incident — testified that he was “frustrated” but not angry with Wilkens after chasing down the motorcyclist. He said he believed Wilkens was trying to elude him at speeds that exceeded 100 mph.
Perlow said Thursday that a prosecutor in her office reviewed the incident and declined to file an eluding charge against Wilkens because the prosecutor felt the allegation could not have been proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
Perlow said she does not know why Wilkens was not charged with reckless driving or any traffic violations, saying “it was clearly an oversight on our part.”
Wilkens testified that he did not recognize Edwards’ unmarked car as a police vehicle when he passed it, and that he didn’t know Edwards was pursuing him until he neared the intersection and stopped.
Wilkens said his tight-fitting motorcycle helmet impaired his ability to hear at the time, and that he did not see the Camaro’s flashing red-and-blue lights through a small rear-view mirror. He testified that when he pulled over for Edwards, he expected to receive a “deserved” speeding ticket.
Edwards, 46, held the rank of lieutenant and served as supervisor of OSP’s Springfield office at the time of the incident. He was later promoted to captain and transferred in early 2015 to OSP’s headquarters in Bend. Edwards has been a state trooper for 22 years.
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