Tasered, punched and arrested by police, a jury awarded him $25

By Kristine Guerra

DeShawn Franklin was punched and Tasered. Photo / Hawke's Bay Today
DeShawn Franklin was punched and Tasered. Photo / Hawke's Bay Today

DeShawn Franklin was asleep in his bedroom when police officers, with their weapons drawn, barged in.

He was punched several times, including three times in the face.

He was also Tasered, dragged out of his bedroom, handcuffed and placed in a police car.

"I didn't even know what was going on. I was just asleep," Franklin told the Washington Post. "It was just all a big shock and disturbance."

One thing became clear immediately: Franklin, then an 18-year-old high school senior, had done nothing wrong. But he did fit the description of a suspect being sought by officers: a slender, African-American man with dreads.

The incident, which occurred in the northern summer of 2012 in a northern Indiana suburb, prompted a civil rights lawsuit against the police officers and city officials.

Earlier this month, a jury found that the officers violated Franklin's constitutional rights by arresting him and entering his family's home without a warrant.

Still, Franklin and his family feel that justice has been denied.

The jury ordered each of the defendants to pay Franklin and his parents US$1 for the violations of their rights. The total award was US$18 ($25) in damages.

The Rev Mario Sims, a senior pastor in South Bend, Indiana, where Franklin lives, said the small award sends a strong message to Franklin and his family: "Your rights are worth a dollar".

Russell Thomas Franklin's nephew, said the whole experience was a "slap in the face".

"To me, it's just solidifying that blacks in America, we have no rights," he said. "How can we fight for something when the system was not made for us in the first place?"

Franklin isn't a thug, Sims said, and he lacks a criminal history. Still the incident four years ago left the now-22-year-old distrustful of law enforcement and in fear that something similar will happen again. He does not want to be recognised, so he has declined requests from local media for a picture of his face.

"It's traumatising," Franklin said. "It's somewhat of a burden that you have to carry every day."

The incident happened at about 2.30am on July 7, 2012, when Franklin and his parents were sleeping. Officers Eric Mentz, Aaron Knepper and Michael Stuk, of the South Bend Police Department, were looking for Dan Jones, Franklin's older brother, after receiving a domestic violence call. The officers received information that Jones may have gone to his parents' house, according to an internal affairs investigation report by the police department.

Franklin's mother, Vivian Franklin, answered the door after hearing loud knocks. The officers went inside without a warrant and without asking for permission to go in, according to the report. The officers told her to stay outside on the front porch.

When they got to DeShawn Franklin's bedroom, they saw him lying on his stomach and woke him up. Startled and afraid, he resisted, so the police officers punched and used a stun gun on him.

His father, Dan Franklin, who is disabled, told the internal affairs investigator that he heard a "pop" and thought the officers had shot his son as he screamed for his mother.

It's somewhat of a burden that you have to carry every day
DeShawn Franklin

The officers soon realised that they got the wrong person. Still, DeShawn Franklin was handcuffed and placed in a squad car for resisting. He was released shortly afterwards, according to the report, and the officers apologised to the family.

The following year, DeShawn Franklin and his parents filed a civil rights lawsuit alleging excessive use of force, unlawful law enforcement entry, false arrest, infliction of emotional distress and other violations.

The internal affairs investigation found that the officers used excessive force and unlawfully entered the Franklins' home. They were disciplined for their actions, including written reprimands, Kevin Lawler, spokesman for the city, told the Indianapolis Star. The police department also trained the officers on Fourth Amendment rights and developed new classes on ethics and diversity, the Star reported.

The same three officers involved in the Franklin lawsuit were named in a 2013 case filed by Jonathan Ferguson, a 7-Eleven store clerk with a learning disability. According to a federal complaint, the officers slashed Ferguson's tyre, and two of them challenged him to eat a teaspoon of cinnamon in exchange for US$30 and a dinner coupon at a local Applebee's. Ferguson did, and he vomited for several hours.

The officers took a video of the "cinnamon challenge," as it had become locally known, and posted it on YouTube, according to the complaint. The parties have reached a settlement in that lawsuit.

In a suburb where more than a quarter of the population is African-American, some cite the lack of diversity in South Bend's police force as a source of tension. Of the 250 officers in 2014, only 25 were black, fewer than 10 were Hispanic and 20 were female, according to a local Fox affiliate.

The city also faces several sex and race discrimination lawsuits filed by current police officers, and have settled three lawsuits involving allegations of racially motivated hate speech by police officers, according to the South Bend Tribune.

This year, however, officials implemented a plan to hire more minorities on the police force. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg said there will be "no quick fixes, no silver bullets," but he promised a "sustainable change," the Tribune reported.

Peter Agostino, the lawyer for the police officers and the city in the lawsuit filed by the Franklins, told the Post that the case isn't about racial injustice, but about a lack of evidence.

Although the jury found constitutional violations, there was no evidence presented in court that supported the amount of damages that the Franklins were seeking. He said the Franklins asked for more than US$1 million in damages.

In civil rights lawsuits, damages are usually measured by medical bills, lost wages, property damage, post-traumatic stress, psychological treatment, impairment and others, Agostino said. But in this case, no such evidence was presented, so the jury awarded the plaintiffs the default amount of US$1, he said.

"You can say that they experienced a deprivation of their constitutional rights," Agostino said.

"But other than the deprivation of constitutional rights, the jury did not find other damages that go along with that," he said. "They did exactly what they were instructed to do. They applied the law and determined the facts."

According to Agostino, the city did offer US$15,000 to settle the case.

Johnny Ulmer, the Franklins' lawyer, told the Star that damages for other similar cases are between US$100,000 and US$300,000.

Stephen Saltzburg, a George Washington University law professor who has dealt with cases on excessive use of force, said lawsuits that usually garner big damages involve excessive force that are "so out of proportion that the jury was just shocked."

In the Franklins' case, although it appeared that the jurors agreed the officers used excessive force, it didn't rise to the level that would justify a big amount. Still, Saltzburg said the amount that the Franklins received doesn't send much of a message to law enforcement about using excessive force.

- Washington Post

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