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Taurus Cafe, Inc. v. Esserman

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

May 5, 2016

TAURUS CAFÉ, INC., Plaintiff,
v.
DEAN M. ESSERMAN, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION

Jeffrey Alker Meyer United States District Judge

In the early morning hours of March 30, 2013, the police responded to the scene of an apparent homicide in the Newhallville section of New Haven, Connecticut. The investigation quickly led them about half a block away to a nightclub/bar known as the Taurus Café. The police learned that the bar had video cameras that might have recorded the victim's last moments and any encounter with his assailants. Because the bar was closed and the police did not have consent to enter, the police eventually secured a court-authorized search warrant to enter the bar and to seize its video-recording storage system.

In this civil lawsuit, the corporate owner of the bar-a limited liability company known as Taurus B, LLC (“Taurus”)-claims that eight police officials of the City of New Haven violated its constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment in the manner that they executed the search warrant. Taurus claims that the police stole about $27, 000 of cash from the basement below the bar and that the police otherwise used unnecessary and destructive means to execute their search.

The matter proceeded to a bench trial before me last week. I now rule that Taurus has failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that any of the police defendants violated Taurus's constitutional rights.

Background

According to the complaint in this case, Taurus does business as the Taurus Café at 520 Winchester Avenue in New Haven, Connecticut. Doc. #21 at 1 (¶ 3). The defendants named in the complaint are eight officials of the New Haven police: Chief of Police Dean M. Esserman; Assistant Chief of Police Achilles Genoroso; Assistant Chief of Police Alfonso Vazquez; Lieutenant Racheal Cain; Lieutenant Otoniel Reyes; Detective Nicole Natale; Detective Michael Wuchuk; and Detective David Zawewski.

According to the operative complaint that was filed by Taurus in this action, the police officer defendants “in the presence of and under the direct supervision” of Police Chief Esserman “battered down the door to the Taurus Café and forcibly entered the basement thereof for the purpose of conducting the search authorized by the [search] warrant.” Doc. #21 at 2-3 (¶ 8). The complaint further alleges that the defendants acted in the immediate presence of Police Chief Esserman to “inflict[] significant and utterly unnecessary damage to the area of the search” and that “one or more of the said defendants absconded with approximately $27, 000 in cash receipts from the café.” Id. at 3 (¶9).

At trial, Taurus called all eight of the police defendants as witnesses and then called Larry Livingston, who was the manager of the Taurus Café. Defendants presented the testimony of one more police officer witness in the defense case. I will summarize below the testimony of the police officer defendants, followed by a summary of the testimony of Larry Livingston.

A. Testimony of Defendant Police Officials

With minor differences among their accounts, the police officer defendants testified to the following facts. At approximately 2:30 a.m. on March 30, 2013, New Haven police responded to a gun shot homicide scene on Thompson Street in the Newhallville section of New Haven.[1] The police quickly learned from a witness that the victim and possible perpetrators had been in an altercation at the nightclub/bar known as the Taurus Café, about half a block away at the corner of Thompson Street and Winchester Avenue. The police knew that the bar had both internal and external surveillance cameras, and the police had an obvious interest in immediately securing and reviewing any telltale footage from these cameras.

But, according to the testimony of all the police officer defendants, the police could not gain permission to enter the bar. The door to the bar was locked, and no one answered. The bar's manager-Larry Livingston-was nowhere to be seen. The bar's “bouncer” appeared outside and spoke with the police. Although he had keys to the bar, he told the police that Livingston would not allow them to go in. The police tried to call Livingston, but there was no answer. The police knew or learned that Livingston lived just upstairs above the bar; they went up an exterior stairway and banged on the door, but Livingston did not answer.

Unable to gain access by consent, the police decided to apply for a search warrant. They went to the home of a state court judge, and the judge signed a warrant at 6:30 a.m. that was prepared by Detectives Wuchek and Zaweski. The warrant authorized the police to search the bar (including the basement) and to seize the “hard drive video/data storage system for the Taurus Café '[s] video security system.” Def Exh. #1 (search warrant and affidavit).

Detectives Wuchek and Zaweski promptly took the warrant to the bar, and the police made one more try to find or speak with Livingston before they executed the warrant. After this effort failed, the police decided to forcibly enter the bar. The fire department was called, and fire personnel used a hydraulic device to force open the front door. The police knocked on the door before the forced entry was made. At least seven of the eight police defendants in this case then entered the premises to execute the warrant: defendants Cain, Generoso, Natale, Reyes, Wuchek, Vazquez, and Zaweski.[2] It was unclear from the trial testimony whether other police officers or fire personnel entered the bar during execution of the search warrant.

Once inside the bar, the police entered a ground-floor area where there was a liquor bar area, a dance floor, and a DJ booth. Inside the DJ booth they found two digital video recorders (DVRs) that they thought might have video images stored on them from the bar's numerous cameras. The police devoted as long as 30 minutes or more to trying to trace the wires from the DVR devices up through the ceiling to verify a connection to the cameras and then to removing the DVR equipment. This effort involved considerable displacement of ceiling tiles and pulling on some ...


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