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iPhone Photog Cleared, Prepares To Sue

by Thomas MacMillan | Mar 7, 2011 8:22 am

(17) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: Legal Writes

Thomas MacMillan Photo A day after an internal affairs investigation found that a top New Haven cop had trampled his rights, Luis Luna scored another legal victory and set his sights on the next battle—forcing that cop to answer to a civil lawsuit.

Luna, a 27-year-old from Wallingford, appeared in Superior Court on Elm Street on Friday morning to vacate a guilty plea he entered after his arrest on Sept. 25, 2010. That’s when then-Assistant Chief Ariel Melendez arrested him on Crown Street, allegedly for interfering with police.

Luna had been filming police with this iPhone at the time. Police were breaking up a fight. Melendez had Luna’s phone confiscated and video erased and ordered Luna arrested and thrown in jail, according to an internal affairs report released last Thursday. The report concluded that Melendez violated police rules by doing so. (Read the report here.)

Despite his innocence, Luna made the mistake of pleading guilty to the charge of creating a public disturbance when he appeared in court on Oct. 8. At the time had the impression that was his best option to have the case go away.

On Friday, he and his lawyer succeeded in having that guilty plea vacated.

A vacated plea essentially means a re-set, and the interfering charge against Luna has been re-docketed for Monday. Max Simmons, Luna’s attorney, said he has the prosecutor’s assurance that the case will be nolled on Monday.

Once the case is disposed of, it will pave the way for a civil suit against Melendez and maybe the city, too.

“Once that’s the case, then we’ll certainly start pursuing it,” Simmons said.

Luna’s case is one of several recent cops-and-cameras controversies in New Haven. The cases prompted New Haven State Sen. Martin Looney to introduce legislation that would make it easier for people to sue police when they are arrested for filming them.

Luna appeared before Judge Karen Sequino just after noon on Friday. The vacation of the plea took only a moment.

Supervisory Assistant State’s Attorney David Strollo told the judge that the state has no objection to the motion to vacate. He predicted that the matter could be disposed of on Monday “without actually hearing it.”

As he left the courthouse with Luna, Simmons said his client can pursue legal action against Melendez on two fronts. He can make a false arrest claim or a federal First Amendment claim. That would have been difficult to do with a guilty plea on the record, but now “we’ll no longer face that challenge,” Simmons said.

Simmons said Melendez will be the target of future legal action, and so will the city.

“Certainly Melendez is the bad actor here,” he said. But the former assistant chief is “not an ordinary beat cop. … This is a person who’s in a position to set policy.”

“The frightening thing here,” is that Melendez falsely arrested Luna in the presence of police officers who look to the assistant chief to lead by example, Simmons said.

Cops at that level of leadership “de facto are the city,” he said.

If Luna pursues a civil claim against the city, it likely won’t go to trial, Simmons predicted. With Thursday’s internal affairs report and the admissions by the department that there were training failures, “it would be in their interest to settle this case,” Simmons said. “It’s not even a close call.”

Simmons declined to say how much money Luna would ask for in a civil suit.

“I feel great,” Luna said about the outcome of Friday’s hearing. “I think the judge did the right thing.”

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posted by: V on March 7, 2011  8:36am

Hey New Haven residents,
...

more of your tax money down the drain.  Take back the city.

posted by: Ellis Copeland on March 7, 2011  10:28am

If I’m on the jury he’s getting a trillion dollars—to be paid by the cop

posted by: ignoranceisbliss on March 7, 2011  10:33am

Any settlement of significant size would be obscene. The city is broke and struggling to meet essential services to its citizens. The point has been made- police policy has been changed and Mr. Luna was not damaged in any serious way. A large settlement to him will change nothing except make a payday for his attorney. A moral person might accept some token compensation and be satisfied with his moral victory.

posted by: roger huzendubel on March 7, 2011  10:42am

it looks to me like they were both acting like fools. the cops didnt need to do what they did butneither did Luna. way to make a mountain out of a molehill.

posted by: William Kurtz on March 7, 2011  11:15am

What’s more obscene is the continuing insistence on the part of some self-described police officers in the discussion forum (following the other current story on this topic) that orders, law, and Constitutional rights be damned, they have full intentions to violate the rights of citizens.

If it takes an obscene settlement to muster the political will to rein in the less-conscientious actors in the police department, well, that’s what it will take.

posted by: streever on March 7, 2011  11:59am

Roger, I don’t NEED to walk on the sidewalk, but if a police officer angrily confronts me and demands I stop, should I? Just to avoid a problem? I mean, I will, because the one time I didn’t comply with a power-tripping cop he choke slammed me into the ground, but should citizens let officers order them around when they aren’t doing anything wrong?

I think Luna is absolutely in the right, and while I hate that the city is going to take another financial hit, I commend him for pushing them in the only way I think they listen to: a direct financial hit.

Hopefully our city gets their act together and starts trying to improve the situation in a more consistent way.

posted by: easy_way on March 7, 2011  1:09pm

This is about a “payday” for Luna and nothing else.  If he was really interested in making a difference relative to the way the NHPD interacts with citizens during confrontations he’d be seeking a audience with the Chief or CAO to discuss it rationally.

The ...  looking for the big payout and their self absorbed attorneys with their “holier than thou” attitudes will tie up the courts and this blog for the next several years for nothing ... there was no harm to this dude, he was probably loaded and feeling invincible ... follow the cops orders and grieve it later through the proper channels.  Give it up Luna and go to work for your money like real people do ... bogus civil rights law suits will get you your 15 seconds of fame ...

posted by: streever on March 7, 2011  2:08pm

easy_way:
Have you tried to create change in New Haven? In my experience, city leaders are extremely loathe to actually change anything.

Look at the Route 34 project. After years of speaking with the city, working with the city, and hearing “We messed up on Whalley, we messed up on Whitney,” etc, we are now seeing them commit the same mistakes again.

In my opinion, the city loves to talk about reform and addressing systemic problems at their root, but it rarely bears out in reality. Look at the school system. 18 years later, they are still building structures instead of leadership. Our city has an agreement with the principals that they can bump a teacher and do their job at 100k+ a year—why do you think the principal who is accused of sexual harassment still has his job?

Mr. Luna is speaking the only language I think the city knows: and even then, they don’t seem to learn their lessons. If they did, we wouldn’t continually make bad decisions which open us up to legal action, and then ask our legal counsel to save our bacon.

posted by: Lincoln Robertson on March 7, 2011  9:24pm

Ellis Copeland

You should remember the history leading up to NHPD’s denial of 1st and 4th amendment rights to this young man, and many Yale students. There were weekends when the downtown club district was violent, with murders then a knucklehead machine gunning the area. The mayor came on heavy to show he was in control, with heavy handed policing and retaliation against club goers. If anyone pays damages it must be the mayor. The cops were only doing what they were told to do.

posted by: Anon on March 7, 2011  9:52pm

To those who say Luna wasn’t harmed, this is so terribly naive. Even Luna doesn’t know yet what he is in for.

His arrest record, no matter if the charge was thrown out, is going to be with him the rest of his life, and those who know about those things, know that it is has the potential to cause him problems whenever and where ever he does, or goes, and no matter what he does.

It is a humiliation, a gift from a rogue cop that will just never, ever, ever stop giving.

Those who are being blase about this just have absolutely no idea the permanent grief, the risk of rearrest, the endless hassles that a false charge brings to those who have gone through it, many of whom do not even know that is the reason why.

posted by: Anon on March 7, 2011  11:05pm

To those who say Luna wasn’t very harmed, this is so terribly naive. Even Luna doesn’t know yet what he is in for.

His arrest record, no matter if the charge was thrown out, is going to be with him the rest of his life, and those who know about those things, know that it is has the potential to cause him problems where ever he goes and whatever he does. 

It is a humiliation, a gift from a rogue cop that will just never, ever, ever stop giving.

Those who are being blase about this just have absolutely no idea the permanent grief, the risk of rearrest, the endless hassles that a false charge brings to those who have gone through it, many of whom do not even know that is the reason why.

It is not a little thing, which is why these fabricated reports are the real problem. Police brutality is a subset of the central core problem of rampant fabrication, aided by the credibility granted the blue uniform that those who engage in it know they can count on.

posted by: The Professor on March 8, 2011  12:46pm

easy_way,

Clearly you’ve never heard of something called “deterrence.”  If we as a society are concerned with making sure that people who have done bad things don’t do them again, we usually do something to provide a disincentive, to make them think twice before committing another bad act. 

Your line of logic is basically akin to saying, “[w]ell, the police officers who arrested the east coast rapist are only interested in improving their own stature within the department, if they were REALLY serious about public safety, they’d take the guy aside and talk to him about why it’s bad to rape all of those people and really try to get to the bottom of his dysfunction and keep him from doing it again.”

Granted, there is definitely personal gain in this for Luna, but that’s a GOOD thing—after all, we want individual citizens to have a reason to go forward with litigation that protects the rights of everyone.  You see this all over the law—when a company violates antitrust law, for instance, those who have been harmed by the violation can get triple the actual damages that they prove.  Why?  To make sure that there’s an adequate incentive to make people want to go after violators, and to make the expected cost of violating the law go up.

Personally, I hope they actually go after Melendez himself here.  Usually, people would go after the city because that’s where the money is, but my oh my how sweet would it be to see this guy’s pension garnished for life to pay a man whose rights he violated.

By the way, hopefully you’ll never find yourself in this situation, but people tend to start singing a very different tune once they’re injured themselves.  Robert Bork spent his entire career railing against the American tort system and saying people were seeking excessive compensation for their injuries.  Then he slipped and fell at the Yale Club of New York and sued for $1 million.

posted by: The Professor on March 8, 2011  1:21pm

Mr. Robertson,

I highly doubt that the Mayor directed the police department to flagrantly violate the rights of New Haven’s citizenry.  There are, believe it or not, ways to show police force without violating peoples’ rights—I witnessed just such a display of force firsthand when I peacefully protested George W. Bush’s second inauguration.  In that case, security was tight and there were police and military personnel everywhere, but they didn’t tell us we couldn’t act within our rights. 

But, for argument’s sake, let’s say someone at City Hall did bring these police officers in and explicitly say something to the effect of, “go out there and violate as many peoples’ rights as you can.”  Since when is “I was just following orders” an acceptable excuse, especially for someone with as much police experience as Melendez?  Maybe you could understand a rookie cop getting caught up in trying to impress a superior, but for someone who had been on the force for as long as Melendez to pull a stunt like this is pretty egregious. 

You might not like the mayor, but it’s ridiculous to blame him for every bad thing done by anyone on the city payroll during his tenure at the helm.

And Ignoranceisbliss,

I made the point in a different comment as well, but what will a token settlement do to discourage future acts like this?  A large award from Melendez directly would be great, since police officers would know they’re personally on the hook for bad acts they commit in the line of duty, although even a payout to come from city coffers would give City Hall more credibility in dealing with these rogue cops.  Right now, NHPD is full of nothing but disdain for the city’s elected leadership.  Maybe if they saw that their actions have real repercussions that hurt the city’s ability to operate effectively, they’d be a little more amenable to efforts to rein in some of the Department’s worst actors.

posted by: NoOne on March 8, 2011  1:44pm

Was there a necessity for Mr. Luna to videotape the cops that were doing their job of breaking up the fight?  Was it his business to interfere?  Does he know what it feels like to be a cop in a city ravaged with crime?  It would not take a great mental effort for an ordinary person to anticipate that the cops would be provoked by his actions.  I believe Mr. Luna did not look so self-assured on the day of his arraignment, as he looks on this picture accompanied by his lawyer.

The taxpayers should not be paying money to someone who lacks common sense.  I hope the judge will throw away the lawsuits, if they are ever filed.  That would be a good lesson for other Mr. Lunas to learn.

posted by: Mister Jones on March 8, 2011  2:18pm

This kid plead guilty to an INFRACTION.  It’s not a crime. There are infractions and violations, like parking tickets, which are different than crimes.  You don’t get a criminal record with an infraction.  Admitting to an infraction and paying a small fine does NOT result in a criminal record, and is a reasonable thing to do in many circumstances.

posted by: Bill on March 8, 2011  3:16pm

The argument that civil lawsuits some how change bad behavior is dubious at best. You’re really suing tax payers in the case of the city which will raise taxes and patients in the case of a hospital that has to raise prices. Neither the tax payer or hospital patients have done anything wrong.

posted by: V on March 8, 2011  6:11pm

“The argument that civil lawsuits some how change bad behavior is dubious at best.”

Bill, I guess you’re not a trial attorney.  They have fought tooth and nail against any tort reform in America; they get rich off the system while the rest of us pay.

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