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2018-07-11 / Front Page

Walton Police Brutality Trial Ends in Financial Settlement For Plaintiff

By Lillian Browne

The Walton Police Station located on Mead Street.The Walton Police Station located on Mead Street.DELHI - Two and a half hours after 57 potential jurors were summoned to the second floor courtroom of the Delaware County Courthouse, five men and three women were sworn in as jurors to hear police brutality allegations against the Walton Police Department and three of its officers - two now employed elsewhere - resulting from a Feb. 1, 2013 arrest in front of Danny’s Restaurant on Gardiner Place in the village.

Pre-trial negotiations have so far been unsuccessful following William J. Picinich’s lawsuit alleging excessive and unnecessary use of police force by Walton police officers Chris Erwin, John Cornwell and Dan St. Jacques, in an arrest which Picinich says he suffered severe permanent physical injuries. For those injuries, Picinich was seeking both punitive and compensatory damages, asserting unnecessary and malicious conduct by the officers.

Background

According to court documents and previous coverage of court proceedings, Picinich was placed under arrest on Feb. 1, 2013 by former Walton Police Officer John Cornwell, who left the Walton Police Department for a position with the Tioga County Sheriff’s Office, and charged with obstructing governmental administration, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct, following Picinich’s wife Tina’s traffic stop for a loud muffler outside of the Walton eatery. She was driving there, she said in court documents, to pick up her husband.

As she parked her vehicle outside the restaurant, court documents and attorney statements to the prospective jury revealed, that not one, but three police cruisers with emergency lights flashing - on the light bar and in the grill - surrounded Tina Picinich as she parked her vehicle outside the eatery.

The flashing lights, Picinich’s attorney Terry Hoffman said, drew the attention of many people. Some of those people were subpoenaed as witnesses for the Plaintiff.

Those witnesses alerted William Picinich - Bill to those who know him - that his wife was being detained by police outside the restaurant. Court documents reveal that Picinich exited the eatery and approached the three law enforcement officers, demanding to know what was going on.

A supporting deposition, sworn to by Cornwell, states that Picinich was told to remove himself from the scene by former Walton Police Officer Chris Erwin, who is currently employed by the Delaware County Sheriff’s Office.

This is where police testimony and Picinich’s testimony diverge. Cornwell swears in his supporting deposition that Picinich became belligerent, swearing at them. Picinich makes no mention of swearing in his version of the events from justice court proceedings, and instead stated that he turned around and started walking back into the eatery when he was forcibly “taken to the ground” and placed under arrest. The way in which he was aggressively handled, Picinich said, resulted in a re-tear of a previous right shoulder rotator cuff injury.

The issue to be tried by the Delaware County Supreme Court jury was whether excessive force was used in the arrest.

Criminal Charges Dismissed

Picinich was found not guilty of the criminal charges lodged against him stemming from his wife’s traffic stop, following a jury trial in Walton Justice Court on Oct. 29 and 30, 2014. In Supreme Court, following the village of Walton’s request to have the excessive use of force case thrown out, Judge John F. Lambert found that the village of Walton “may be held liable for injuries where a police officer uses excessive force in an arrest; and a police officer may be held liable for assault and battery even when performing an official duty if excessive force was used and the force used was not reasonable.”

In order to recover damages, Picinich must convince a jury that there was physical contact and that the contact was ‘offensive.’”

In a ruling prior to trial, the court determined that “The plaintiff’s injury is severe, while the charged crimes are relatively minor.”

He Said, He Said, He Said

In choosing a jury, Lambert began by telling assembled jurors that there was an “allegation of excessive use of force by police officers” that resulted in “alleged injuries to the plaintiff.”

Picinich’s lawyer quizzed the first panel of 14 jurors by asking them questions: Are you familiar with Danny’s Restaurant? Have you ever worked for an insurance company or a municipality - a taxpayer funded entity? Are you intimidated by the Defendants - two of which are in uniform and carrying guns, though they have the right to wear uniforms and carry guns? Should police officers be believed simply because they are police officers? Have you ever suffered an injury that has been disabling? Would you weigh the testimony of a police officer like anyone else? Do you agree that police officers are tasked with de-escalating a situation and can sometimes exaggerate the truth or invent facts?

Respondents’ counsel, Michael Cook of Ulster County, in turn told jurors that there is a different standard of proof in civil cases than in criminal cases. In civil cases, Cook said, like this one, jurors merely need to find “a preponderance of evidence,” which, he said, means “it’s more likely than not.”

He told the jurors who had not yet heard about the criminal charges, that they could not consider the dismissal of the criminal charges during the trial.

“Mr. Picinich is going to allege that he has a shoulder injury,” Cook told the jurors. “My clients dispute everything he says.”

Cook then questioned the panel whether they had ever experienced any negative interaction with authority figures, police officers or agencies.

One woman who stated she felt the media “villainizes” police was dismissed as a potential juror, as was a former Suffolk County Corrections Officer who stated that sometimes situations escalate quickly and immediate action needs to be taken by officers.

Judge Cautions Jurors

Upon their selection, Lambert cautioned jurors not to discuss the trial with anyone, until directed to do so by the court. He further directed that jurors should not read or listen to any newspaper or media accounts of the trial, stating that any reports were merely the view of one person who has their own interpretation of events.

Opening statements and witness testimony were scheduled to begin in the case of William J. Picinich against the Village of Walton, the Village of Walton Police Department, Village of Walton Police Officers Chris Erwin, John Cornwell and Dan St. Jacques, as police officers and individually, on Tuesday, July 10 at 9 a.m.

Day Two

Without fanfare, Lambert dismissed the jurors from service, telling them that the case had been settled and that they were excused from jury service, with the thanks of the court.


Plaintiff William Picinich, right, talks with his attorney Terry Hoffman outside the Delaware County Courthouse following the settlement of the case. Lillian Browne/The Reporter Plaintiff William Picinich, right, talks with his attorney Terry Hoffman outside the Delaware County Courthouse following the settlement of the case. Lillian Browne/The Reporter A Financial Settlement Awarded to Picinich

On the courthouse lawn following the trial, Picinich’s attorney Terry Hoffman said that the Respondents had offered to financially settle the case several times prior to the trial. Those offers, Hoffman said, were not acceptable or reasonable.

Both parties to the lawsuit, Hoffman said reflectively, would have had a degree of difficulty in getting the jury to understand what the facts were.

“In most situations when police officers get into legal difficulties, they let their egos take control over their good judgment. And I think this happened in this case,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman shared his larger view. “Certain police officers, when given a badge and a gun, get carried away with what they can do irrespective of a citizen’s Constitutional or statutory rights.”

When asked why he agreed to a settlement under those circumstances, Hoffman said that though he thought the liability aspects were favorable to Picinich, a last-minute increased financial settlement neared what he thought the jury might award as “damages.”

The agreed-to settlement on Tuesday morning, Hoffman said, was a more acceptable number - one that reached “well into six figures.”

The respondent officers, Hoffman said, also made a last minute request to the court that the dollar figure of the financial settlement not be disclosed to the public. However, Hoffman continued, respondents’ attorney Michael Cook, did not seem concerned with whether it was disclosed or not.

Admission of Wrong Doing?

“They wouldn’t have offered a substantial settlement in this case, unless they felt there was a lot of exposure combined with the liability,” Hoffman said of the offer to settle. Should the case have gone forward, Hoffman said he would have produced witness testimony that would have shown that the three police officers went beyond what they should be legally required to do to perform their functions.”

The punitive or punishment aspect of the case was rolled into the financial settlement, Hoffman continued, adding that the police officers’ current employers or future employers should bear in mind that there is a substantial financial settlement based upon their conduct.

The police officers involved in the case, Hoffman said, “...should certainly think twice before acting like this toward another citizen.”

Though he didn’t request that the police officers receive any type of retraining in de-escalation techniques, he is hopeful that the financial settlement suggests just that to the police officers’ employers.

No Fear of Retribution

The financial award was irrelevant to the case, Picinich said, following the trial with his attorney close at hand, listening.

Picinich said he is disappointed in the settlement, because, he said, justice was never really served.

Despite the incident and the settlement, Picinich said he has no fear of police or retribution.

“They are here to serve and protect us. Just like any profession, though, there is good and bad.

It turned out this time we got some bad ones.

Hopefully at some point down the road they will be disciplined.”

Hoffman said that police officers, wherever they are employed, should be trained and directed not to do anything intentionally to escalate a situation in which they are involved. “In this case, they did several things, in my opinion, to escalate the situation,” Hoffman said.

Additionally, Hoffman continued, police officers have a corresponding duty to de-escalate a situation if they can do so safely and reasonably.

Picinich has advice for others. “People shouldn’t tuck their tails,” Picinich said. “They should stand up for what’s right.”

No Comment from Respondents

Attempts to get comments from the respondents’ attorney about the resolution of the case were unsuccessful as Cook and the police officers exited the courthouse via a backdoor.

* Subscribers can read previous related coverage at: the- r eporter.net/ news/ 2015- 11- 24/ News/ Walton_ Man_ Cleared_ of_ Criminal_ Drug_ Charges. html; the- reporter.net/ news/ 2015- 09- 22/ News/ Anonymous_ Tip_ Leads_ to_Arre st_of_Wa lton_ Man. html and the- reporter.net/ news/ 2013- 06- 25/ News/ Pistol_ License_ Revoked_ after_ Scuffle_ with_ Walton_ P. html

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