Fresno to pay $1.7m on police-brutality claim

April 26, 2010 

The city of Fresno has agreed to another million-dollar-plus payout to settle claims that police used excessive force to break up a 2005 homecoming celebration for a soldier returning from Iraq.

The city will pay $1.7 million to 10 family members who sued the city in U.S. District Court in Fresno for police brutality, the plaintiffs' attorneys said Monday.

Coupled with an earlier payout of $1.6 million to a Clovis couple, the city has paid $3.3 million to settle the lawsuits stemming from the March 6, 2005, party in southeast Fresno.

"Our clients are very pleased with the settlement and feel it vindicates their allegations of excessive force," said lawyer Peter Kapetan.

City officials, including Police Chief Jerry Dyer, declined to say why they settled the suit, especially since a jury in January acquitted a baton-wielding officer of using excessive force in connection with the homecoming party.

The plaintiffs' lawyers, however, contend that city leaders were fearful a federal jury would have heard evidence that was not allowed in Marcus Tafoya's criminal trial in Fresno County Superior Court.

"There was going to be powerful testimony that this incident could have been prevented," said lawyer Charles Barrett, who also represented the plaintiffs.

The evidence included Sgt. Michael Manfredi's sworn deposition testimony that his superiors have covered up Internal Affairs investigations, the lawyers said. The jury also would have learned about more than a dozen Internal Affairs complaints against Tafoya and Manfredi, they said.

Tafoya was fired from the Police Department in July 2007 for his role at the homecoming party. The Fresno County District Attorney's Office targeted him for prosecution on excessive-force charges, but a jury in January found him not guilty.

Manfredi was fired after a police internal affairs investigation concluded that he and three other officers acted inappropriately during the arrest of Rolando Celdon in October 2005. The city settled Celdon's excessive-force claim for $67,000. The city's Civil Service Board, however, overturned Manfredi's firing in 2007.

Manfredi remains on the police force.

City spokesman Randy Reed stressed that the city admitted no liability in the settlement. He said the settlement will be paid by the city's insurance carrier.

Police have said partygoers attacked, punched and hit officers when they arrived at the home where relatives and friends were celebrating the return of Marine George Rendon.

The partygoers who sued the city, however, said in their civil rights lawsuits that they never assaulted the officers. They also said that Tafoya hit them numerous times, including with a police baton, and that Manfredi did nothing to stop Tafoya.

In October 2006, the city paid Gabriel and Rebecca Rodriguez $1.6 million to settle their civil rights case against the city, Dyer, Manfredi and Tafoya.

Gabriel Rodriguez required four staples to close a head wound he suffered after he was struck by a baton, their complaint said. Rebecca Rodriguez said she was beaten as she tried to block the blows aimed at her husband.

The 10 other plaintiffs will receive damages -- ranging from $687,5000 to $55,000 -- for emotional distress caused by being handcuffed and humiliated by police, and charged with crimes that prosecutors later dismissed, Barrett and Kapetan said.

"I hope the city learned its lesson," Kapetan said. "But in all likelihood, I don't anticipate it."

The reporter can be reached at plopez@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6434.

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