City Settles Excessive Force Cases for $170,000

One Denunzio Chapter Over, Another One Still Going

The city has settled the Cotledge and Denunzio federal cases. This still from a patrol car shows Tony Denunzio's arrest in 2011.

By any reckoning, 2011 was a very rough year for Santa Barbara Police Officer Aaron Tudor, a strapping, muscular cop then in his fourth year on the force. It was arguably rougher, however, for two defendants whom — in separate incidents — Tudor would conclude had resisted arrest. By the time Tudor subdued Tony Denunzio — a 53-year-old with a checkered record — Denuzio would be tased 13 times, sustain three broken ribs, and a broken nose. That was in October 2011. One month later, Tudor would break the arm of 19-year-old Britteny Cotledge while bending her over the hood of his car. The snapping sound of Cotledge’s arm can be heard clearly over the background thrum in the video footage caught by Tudor’s patrol car camera. Tudor would contend she broke her own arm by squirming and resisting. Another officer on the scene with Tudor reportedly threw up at the time and was ministered to by emergency response technicians. He has since left the department. One month later, Tudor found himself in hot water again, this time for calling up a young woman he’d recently arrested for driving under the influence to see if she’d like to hang out. The woman, it turned out, attended the same church as Tudor. Of the three incidents, only the latter would violate departmental protocol.

This past Tuesday, Officer Aaron Tudor’s very long 2011 came to a close as the Santa Barbara City Council agreed to settle with Denunzio — who filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against City Hall and the Police Department — for $120,000. In addition, the council agreed to pay Cotledge $50,000 to make her civil rights lawsuit go away, too.

Tony Vincent Denunzio

In addition, the private insurance company representing Lessor Michael, the phlebotomist hired to draw blood from inmates at County Jail, agreed to pay Denunzio $25,000. Denunzio’s attorneys Tom Beck and Darryl Genis charged that Michael violently extracted blood from Denunzio without using a disinfected needle. At the time, they charged, Denunzio was pinned face first to a filthy, vomit-specked floor by city cops.

The settlement authorization took place during closed-door deliberations at the end of this Tuesday’s City Council meeting. Because no final document has yet been signed, City Attorney Ariel Calonne said he could not comment on the case. All calls for comment from the Police Department are referred to Calonne, who stated that his heart goes out to all the officers whose “unfortunate lot” includes dealing with inebriated citizens. Attorneys Tom Beck and Darryl Genis, however, were eager to talk, and both confirmed the settlement has, in fact, been struck. Only the ink, they said, has yet to dry.

Avoiding Federal Trial

For both sides, the settlement comes as both a strategic and tactical relief. While Calonne could not comment, others in City Hall expressed fear that if the cases had gone to trial in federal court in Los Angeles, Tudor, the Police Department and the city itself would get hammered. Said one City Hall insider, “Los Angeles juries hate cops.” The issue of excessive force has achieved critical mass in the public eye in the aftermath of the widespread protests over Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri. So great is the sensitivity to such issues that lawyers for the City of Tustin, attorney Tom Beck said, sought a court order barring him from mentioning Ferguson in a civil rights case he is now waging against the Tustin Police Department. Beck, a civil rights specialist out of Los Alamitos, noted, however, that federal jury pools draw from as far north as San Luis Obispo, suggesting that the Ferguson factor has been exaggerated. “But if I got an all L.A. jury,” he conceded, “we’d have made so much money on this case that the judge would have to take it away from us.”

Around City Hall, the settlement is seen more as a calculated business decision than any admission of any wrongdoing by Tudor or by the department. In both instances, his actions have been reviewed by higher-ups in the Police Department, and in both instances, Police Chief Cam Sanchez has defended Tudor’s actions. Even so, some councilmembers have expressed concern about the degree of force used to subdue Denunzio and Cotledge. Most, however, remain convinced Tudor used the degree of force required by the circumstances.

City Attorney Ariel Calonne
Paul Wellman (file)

One of the key threats posed by these civil rights claims, as Calonne explained it, is attorneys’ fees. Even if federal juries awarded Cotledge and Denunzio the most token of victories — say $500 — City Hall would still be on the hook for attorneys’ fees. Under federal rules, the prevailing party can claim fees up to $750 an hour. Those costs would easily hit six figures. On the flip side, the concern is that by settling, City Hall might be inviting future lawsuits. In the past, City Hall took a more aggressively defensive posture, rebuffing cost-effective settlements even at the risk of big ticket losses. By contrast, Calonne — now in his first year at his post — has been more pragmatic. That might explain why last year — when Cotledge had agreed to settle her beef with City Hall for $30,000 — the council rejected her offer. A year ago, Calonne had not yet taken over as City Attorney from his predecessor Steve Wiley.

A Practical Victory

The settlement comes only a few months after Genis — then relishing a significant procedural victory against Lessor Michael, the jail house phlebotomist — had exclaimed the Denunzio case could be worth “millions and millions.” Clearly, the $145,000 paid to settle what has been a high-profile case — and a major humiliation to law enforcement agencies — is a far cry from “millions and millions.” It turns out that Genis — whose inflammatory comments and confrontational tactics have gotten him in chronic hot water with local judges, prosecutors, and the California State Bar, which is currently seeking to suspend his license — is also practical. “My client is not necessarily the most sympathetic plaintiff,” he conceded. “A lot of people say he had it coming.” (Around City Hall, the language used to describe Denunzio is much stronger than that, and likewise for Genis himself.)

Defense attorney Darryl Genis
Paul Wellman

Genis compared his client Denunzio unfavorably to Jerry Cox, a 54-year-old homeless veteran with whom City Hall just settled an incident involving a tasing on upper De La Vina Street. Cox was tased for resisting arrest when cops responded to calls that he was snooping around a car parked on the street. The car, it turned out, belonged to Cox, and when police told him to sit down, he refused. “Certainly you would say a homeless veteran is a lot more sympathetic than my client,” Genis reckoned. “So why is that I managed to get five times as big a settlement?” Answering his own question, Genis said, with evident satisfaction, “Good lawyering.”

Thomas Beck added that the federal judge in the Denunzio case — George Wu — regarded the dispute as ”a trivial matter” and did not give the plaintiff’s attorneys enough time to investigate the case and depose witnesses to develop a more formidable case. “We had a very truncated discovery process,” Beck said, “only 90 days.” Beck, like Genis, likes to talk, describing “the total ass-kicking” Denunzio endured at Tudor’s hands as a felonious assault.

The Denunzio Incident

Denunzio was pulled over in the Gelson’s parking lot in Loreto Plaza after Tudor saw him change lanes three times without signaling on the way from Hendry’s Beach. When Denunzio failed to comply with Tudor’s order, “Stay in your car” — after he’d already gotten out of his truck — Tudor executed a leg sweep, bringing Denunzio to the ground. Whatever the provocation, several witnesses were so upset by what they saw that they called 9-1-1. When back-up officers arrived, they helped subdue Denunzio. Several witnesses — upset by what they regarded as unnecessary violence — complained that the investigating officers treated them rudely. While Tudor was cleared for his role in the incident, two other officers were disciplined for the abrasive manner with which they interacted with the witnesses.

Much to the chagrin of Police Chief Sanchez, District Attorney Joyce Dudley declined to file charges against Denunzio for resisting arrest. Dudley cited the sharply conflicting testimony her investigators collected from 13 eyewitnesses who observed the melee. Later, a Santa Maria judge rejected prosecution charges that Denunzio’s blood alcohol level was above the legal blood alcohol limit when he was driving; a jury would split 8-4 on the lesser charge of driving under the influence. The DA’s Office opted not to retry the case.

The Cotledge Incident

While the Denunzio case has become the stuff of Santa Barbara media lore, the Cotledge matter has all but sailed under the radar. Cotledge was reportedly driving with her boyfriend from a Westside party that was threatening to become violent on November 19, 2011, when her car hit someone else’s. There were no witnesses other than the officers themselves and Tudor’s car camera. Genis acknowledged his client was “not a model of restraint,” but he disputed Tudor’s contention that she was resisting. “She was leaning her head back and asking what was happening,” Beck added. In the video, she is seen squirming and lifting her head up off the hood of Tudor’s police car, where he was trying to pin her. At the time, Cotledge and her boyfriend agreed she’d been resisting arrest. Tudor explained that she broke her own arm by so doing. Comparing his client to Tudor, Cotledge, said Genis, barely weighs 100 pounds. “He doesn’t know his own strength,” Genis exclaimed.

Potentially problematic for Tudor was the testimony of the emergency room physician who treated Cotledge. Her arm broke cleanly along her humerus bone, located between her shoulder and her elbow. The doctor claimed the amount of pressure required to break that bone would inflict so much pain that it would be physically impossible for anyone to break their own arm. Beck and Genis said Cotledge rang up only a few thousand dollars in medical bills as a result of the incident, which limited the amount they could seek. “When you have $4,000 in actual damages, it’s pretty unrealistic to expect a jury to give you $1 million,” Genis said.

Genis said neither Denunzio nor Cotledge wanted to speak to the media regarding the settlements.

For Cotledge, her legal battles are over. By contrast, trouble seems to stalk Denunzio or perhaps vice versa. This May he was arrested by city police for trespassing and resisting arrest. He and his brother reportedly got so loud and unruly they were asked to leave a waterfront restaurant. At that point, they snuck past the security gate of one of the marinas and boarded a boat moored there, which they said they thought belonged to a friend of theirs. (It did not.) When Denunzio was confronted by Harbor Patrol security officers, Genis said, the officers were fingering their tasers during the encounter. Denunzio asked if they planned to use then. When they answered they might, Genis said, Denunzio — suffering post traumatic stress syndrome — took off. In the ensuing chase, a veteran Habor Patrol officer slipped and fell. Worse, when attempting to apprehend Denunzio, he ripped his bicep muscle, a painful and debilitating injury.

This time, the DA filed resisting arrest charges against Denunzio. Genis has filed a conflict of interest motion to have the case reassigned to the California Attorney General. It turns out the injured Harbor Patrol officer is married to a senior deputy in the District Attorney’s Office. That matter is still pending. In the meantime, Genis is claiming that law enforcement was out to get his client. And he’s showing no inclination to tone down his commentary. “My client is allegedly the inebriated one, and he’s being chased by an experienced, sober Harbor Patrol officer,” he said. “Yet, it’s the sober and experienced Harbor Patrol officer who slips over his own two feet while my client, allegedly inebriated, gets away. How does that make sense?”


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