High-profile attorney Richard Berman has settled his federal civil-rights lawsuit against the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office for $250,000 in a case that he says solidifies a person’s right to question authority.
“They push people around all the time,” Berman said Tuesday. “Finally, someone stood up to them.”
In his lawsuit, Berman contended that a female sheriff’s deputy roughed him up in the lobby of the downtown Fresno criminal courthouse in March 2012, arrested him and publicly humiliated him in a dispute over a child’s plastic toy.
Berman, 69, and his lawyer, Jacob “Jack” Weisberg, said a courthouse security video proved Berman did nothing wrong.
“All he did was question authority,” Weisberg said. “The law gives people the right to talk back to police without fear of being arrested.”
The incident happened on March 13, 2012. Sheriff Margaret Mims said then that Berman started the fight by shoving Deputy Tracy Sink. The sheriff also said Berman was arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor battery on the deputy. But Berman never was charged.
The crooks and the bad cops are the ones who fear body cameras.
Retired Fresno attorney Richard Berman
The video doesn’t show Berman shoving Sink. Instead, it shows Sink grabbing Berman’s left arm and arresting him. In all, three deputies took Berman into custody.
Sheriff’s spokesman Tony Botti said in an email Tuesday that the sheriff “does not wish to comment on the Berman case.” He said Sink still works as a deputy.
Berman sought damages for false arrest, excessive force, retaliation and violation of his free-speech rights. But on the eve of trial in U.S. District Court, Fresno County settled with him and the case was dismissed on June 21.
Berman said he waited until this week to talk about the case because he wanted to make sure the settlement money was deposited in his back account.
The lawsuit says Berman entered the courtroom around 9:15 a.m. March 13, 2012, with a client. A female relative of the client had a child’s toy – a small plastic wrench that weighed less than 2 ounces – in her purse and was told by Sink that she couldn’t take it into the courthouse.
The courthouse has a strict policy that requires people to show all personal items before passing through security. That includes things such as belts and coins, but also the contents of purses and other bags, sheriff’s officials say.
Sink told the woman to throw the toy away. When Berman questioned Sink about the toy, he said, the deputy forcefully grabbed him, roughed him up and placed him under arrest.
Berman said he was publicly humiliated when he was forced to sit handcuffed on a stool in the courthouse lobby and was prohibited from talking.
At the time of the incident, Mims said Berman instigated the confrontation by yelling to his client to give him the toy wrench, which she did. The deputy then told Berman that he would not be able to take the wrench into the courthouse.
“Berman refused to give up the wrench, whereupon the deputy attempted to take it from him,” Mims said in the news release at the time. Berman responded by shoving the deputy backward, the sheriff said.
“That’s not true,” Weisberg said Tuesday. Berman never shoved the deputy or cursed her, the lawyer said.
“He just asked the deputy about the toy wrench,” Weisberg said.
Court records show the lawsuit was dismissed June 21 in U.S. District Court after Fresno County settled with Richard Berman and his lawyer, Jack Weisberg.
A pre-trial ruling by U.S. Magistrate Judge Stanley Boone gives details about the dispute and the issues.
If the case had gone to trial, Weisberg said, he had emails from three judges who had complained about Sink’s “rude behavior” toward jurors and other people entering the courthouse. He said Sink’s supervisor never investigated the complaints or disciplined her.
Berman, who began practicing in 1973, said he also planned to tell the jury about his more than four decades of experience, which included being named one of the best criminal defense attorneys in America, past president of the Fresno County Bar Association, former chief deputy district attorney, and a captain in the Army reserve.
When the incident happened, Berman was 65 years old and had just returned to work after spinal fusion surgery and four months of physical therapy. Rods and screws were still in his back and his scars were healing, he recalled Tuesday.
He said when he questioned Sink about the toy, “she exploded” and grabbed him in a “felony take-down” maneuver.
Berman said he and others pleaded with Sink not to hurt him because of his bad back, but the deputy still “slammed me onto a table, where she put her considerable weight on my back and handcuffed me.”
She then rotated his back and shoulders, causing more damage to his back, Berman said. If the case had gone to trial, his medical expert would have testified that Sink injured him in her attack, he said.
Berman and Weisberg said deputies lied in their reports. Surprisingly, Sink testified in a deposition to the facts as shown in the video, not in her sheriff’s report, Berman said.
“The video proved my innocence beyond any doubt and would have impeached the deputies,” he said.
Berman said he fought the Sheriff’s Office for the “little guy.”
“These types of cases are arduous and expensive,” said Berman. “The victims of police misconduct are usually minorities, poor, uneducated, substance abusers, tattooed, have criminal records or all of the above, and have little jury appeal even if they have a good case,” he said.
On the other hand, law enforcement gets free legal support and has “virtually unlimited resources to overpower, outspend or just plain outlast the victims,” he said. Deputies and police officers also have been trained how to testify and write reports that are most favorable to themselves and their agencies, he said.
“It is never a fair fight,” Berman said.
Berman, who now lives in the Bay Area, also said law enforcement officers should have body cameras to record transactions between them and the public.
“This is not an anti-police move,” he said, noting that the vast majority of officers “are honest, hardworking and do a dangerous and often thankless job.”
“The cameras will protect the honest, law-abiding officers and support their testimony,” he said. “The crooks and the bad cops are the ones who fear body cameras.”
Second, he said, America was founded in response to a tyrannical and oppressive government.
“Our citizens have a duty and a responsibility to always question authority and keep a sharp eye on those we entrust with authority,” he said. “That was true over 200 years ago and it is still true today.”