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Rinaldi v. Laird

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

August 5, 2016




         This case involves all-too-familiar allegations of police brutality against a criminal suspect who has fled from and is apprehended by the police. Late one night in October 2011, plaintiff Donato Rinaldi led the police in Waterbury, Connecticut on a high-speed car chase after his accomplice stole goods from a supermarket. When the police finally stopped Rinaldi’s car, he alleges that they violently assaulted him despite the fact that he surrendered and did not resist arrest.

         He brought this federal civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against two Waterbury police officers-defendants Adam Laird and Michael Modeen-claiming that they violated his constitutional right under the Fourth Amendment to be free from the use of excessive force. The matter proceeded to a bench trial before me last week, and this is my ruling.

         For the reasons set forth below, I conclude that Rinaldi has not proven that Laird used excessive force. On the other hand, I conclude that Rinaldi has proven that Modeen used excessive force and that Modeen shall be liable to Rinaldi for $10, 000 in compensatory damages.


         The following findings of fact are based on the testimony and evidence at trial.[1] The parties agree about most of what happened except for what occurred during the first few minutes after Rinaldi was stopped and secured by the police following a car chase. Accordingly, I will first describe the background facts about which the parties generally agree before turning to a description of the parties’ contrasting accounts about the nature of the officers’ initial encounter with Rinaldi after the stop of his car.

         A. The Theft and Police Pursuit

         Rinaldi is a long-time resident of Watertown, Connecticut, who works in masonry and construction. In October 2011, he and an acquaintance, Derek Ramdin, spent a weekend together in which they regularly ingested cocaine. Late in the evening of October 10, 2011, Rinaldi and Ramdin hatched a scheme to steal Red Bull energy drinks from a supermarket and in hopes of reselling the drinks to a bodega in to buy more cocaine.[2]

         At around 10:00 pm, Rinaldi and Ramdin drove in Rinaldi’s car to a supermarket in Southbury, Connecticut. While Rinaldi waited outside, Ramdin went inside to steal the Red Bulls. Soon enough, Ramdin came dashing out with the stolen goods, closely followed by supermarket employees trying to stop him. Ramdin got into the car, and Rinaldi made good the escape, driving away back toward Waterbury.

         But Rinaldi and Ramdin’s troubles were far from over. A short time later, a Connecticut state police trooper spotted Rinaldi’s car and pulled him over on I-84 between Southbury and Waterbury. Rinaldi at first complied, and he turned over his driver’s license and registration upon request. But while the trooper was verifying the papers, Rinaldi suddenly drove away. He testified that he fled because he knew he was in violation of probation and did not want to be arrested again. The trooper-now shortly joined by at least two other trooper cars-pursued Rinaldi. At some point along the highway, the troopers tried to force Rinaldi’s car off the highway, and Rinaldi ran into or over a traffic sign.

         Rinaldi eventually exited the highway and then led the state and local police on a chase through the streets of Waterbury. At one point, the police hemmed in Rinaldi on a dead end street. But Rinaldi eluded capture by driving through someone’s backyard, including through some shrubs and running up and over some steps on the outside of the house. During that part of the chase, Rinaldi drove near another trooper who was outside of his car and with gun drawn but who did not fire.

         In the meantime, defendants Laird and Modeen-patrol officers for the City of Waterbury-were in a police car together about to finish their shift. They learned over the radio about the ongoing chase, including that Rinaldi had nearly run over a police officer, and they kept on the lookout for Rinaldi’s car. At around 10:30 pm, they saw the car cut through a diner parking lot and they joined the chase. Rinaldi veered toward Laird and Modeen’s cruiser, forcing Laird (who was driving) to do an evasive maneuver. Rinaldi then spun his car around, and Laird and Modeen now took the lead in the chase behind him, closely following Rinaldi down Watertown Avenue, until they reached a four-way intersection with Aurora Street. Near that intersection, Rinaldi slowed as if about to take a right turn but then abruptly veered left, clipping the front of the police cruiser and setting Rinaldi’s car into a 180-degree spin to come to rest in the street face-to-face with the police cruiser.[3]

         Both Laird and Modeen immediately emerged from their cruiser to secure Rinaldi on the driver’s side and Ramdin on the passenger’s side. At that point, however, the parties’ versions of what happened diverge. I will first describe Rinaldi’s version, then I will describe the police officers’ version.

         B. Rinaldi’s Version

         Rinaldi testified that after his collision with the police car, he remained in his driver’s seat with his hands on the steering wheel. Two officers whom he identified as Laird and Modeen came running toward his door, pulling on leather gloves. He did not know the officers at the time, but he claimed in court to recognize both of them by their faces, and in particular he insisted that he knew Modeen, saying “I won’t forget the face.”

         Rinaldi testified that the officers told him to get out of the car, and he did not immediately respond. Modeen struck him while he was still in the car with some kind of a blunt object like a flashlight that Rinaldi was not able to identify. He was struck three or four times before he was dragged out of the car, then he was beaten down to the ground and repeatedly punched, kicked, and stomped on by Laird and Modeen. They were telling him, “Your day’s over, ” and “You think you’re a tough guy.”

         According to Rinaldi, he was struck more than a dozen times by Laird and Modeen. The majority of blows were delivered to his face, the back of his head, and his lower back. At the end of the encounter, Rinaldi was lying on the ground, face down and “buried” in the pavement. Rinaldi testified that he did nothing to resist, fight back, or to protest or taunt the officers.

         Eventually, Rinaldi was handcuffed, and the beating stopped. He heard someone say to “pull off him because a sergeant was coming. About a dozen local and state police officers were now present, and an ambulance also arrived. Rinaldi was taken by ambulance to the hospital. He did not want medical treatment but said he was cleaned up somewhat and given two bandages for his face. He was then taken from the hospital to a state police barracks where his booking photo was taken. This photo was admitted as an exhibit at trial and is reproduced here:

         (IMAGE OMITTED)

         Rinaldi testified that all of the damage to his face was from blows by Laird and Modeen. The bandage covering a wound underneath his left eye was from a blow that he received from Modeen with a blunt object while he was still in his car. The bandage on the right side of his face above his eye covered a wound to his forehead from being dragged on to the pavement. According to Rinaldi, the remaining damage to and around his right eye was from the officers pounding his face, and the photograph was “self-explanatory” about what happened to him.

         Rinaldi’s account was subject to vigorous challenge under cross-examination. The cross-examination tried to suggest that Rinaldi had identified the wrong officers, including that he had previously filed a different federal court lawsuit against two other police officers in addition to Laird and Modeen. The cross-examination also tried to suggest that the damage to Rinaldi’s face could have resulted from the car chase when he was not wearing a seatbelt and had had numerous sudden turns and collisions with objects. The cross-examination relied on the records from Rinaldi’s treatment at the hospital and the lack of any reference in the treatment records to any allegation by Rinaldi that he had been beaten up by the police. The cross-examination further challenged his ability to recall the events in question in light of his use of cocaine. ...

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