Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Motorist loses lawsuit against Montgomery County police officer

A Montgomery County police officer did not violate the constitutional rights of a man who said he sustained a head injury and a broken cheek in an assault after being handcuffed near his minivan, a federal court jury has found.

The officer, Robert Mazzuca, countered that that he did not strike Joseph Robinson III after he was handcuffed. Rather, Mazzuca said his efforts to subdue Robinson were “objectively reasonable” in light of a report he was driving a stolen automobile and failed to comply with police commands that he lie face down after getting out of the vehicle.

“We felt strongly that the officer involved did not use excessive force under the circumstances,” said Paul F. Leonard Jr., an associate Montgomery County attorney who successfully defended Mazzuca. “The jury vindicated that position.”

But Allan M. Siegel, an attorney for Robinson, said his client faced the daunting task of being the only eyewitness for his side, while five police officers who were witnesses testified for the defense.

“People have a tendency to believe police officers and trust police officers,” said Siegel, of Chaikin, Sherman, Cammarata & Siegel PC of Washington, D.C. “It was challenging and difficult for Mr. Robinson.”

In his $5 million lawsuit, Robinson said Mazzuca and other county officers violated his right against unreasonable seizures after they halted the Dodge Caravan he was driving by stopping their unmarked cars in front of it at about 8:15 p.m. March 28, 2006, on Hungerford Drive in Rockville.

The other officers — Dinesh Patil, Charles Haak, Alan Cawood and David Wells — were dismissed as defendants in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.

Robinson, in his complaint, said officers handcuffed him behind his back, though he had “complied” with their request that he exit the vehicle and “followed all police commands.” Officers, without provocation, then buckled his knee, “picked him up and slammed his face on the pavement with such force as to break the zygomatic arch [cheek] on the left side of his face and cause, among other things, a brain injury,” alleged Siegel and Joseph Cammarata, his co-counsel and law firm partner.

Only after inflicting these injuries did the officers request identification and ask Robinson if he was the Caravan’s owner, the complaint stated.

Robinson was not charged with any crime, the complaint added.

In a responsive filing, Mazzuca and the other officers acknowledged that they cut off the Caravan to stop it.

But Robinson, they said, failed to comply with their commands. For example, the officers said Robinson stopped only after his minivan struck one of the police vehicles.

The officers then ordered Robinson out of the Caravan, told him to walk backward toward them and get on his knees, Leonard wrote in the court filing. Robinson did as he was told but very slowly, Leonard added.

When Robinson ignored the officers’ repeated requests to get on the ground, Mazzuca approached him from behind. The officer placed his hands on Robinson’s shoulders and back and pushed him forward onto his stomach, Leonard wrote.

Another officer, Wells, then placed a knee between Robinson’s shoulder blades briefly as he was handcuffed. Officers then lifted Robinson to his feet, Leonard added.

At this point, Patil told Robinson that the vehicle had been reported as stolen.

Robinson responded by saying he was the vehicle’s owner. He said he had mistakenly reported the Caravan stolen but later told the Prince George’s County police that he had recovered the car, Leonard wrote.

The Prince George’s police department said it had never been notified of the vehicle’s recovery, he added.

Robinson also complained of facial pain, but told Patil that he had oral surgery earlier that day, Leonard wrote. The officer called for an ambulance but Robinson declined medical care, according to Leonard.

Robinson, in his complaint, alleged violations of Section 1983 of the 1871 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits police officers, acting under color of state law, from violating an individual’s constitutional rights. He also claimed assault and battery; negligent hiring, training supervision and retention; and loss of consortium.

Montgomery County was also a defendant in the lawsuit but was excused of any liability by U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte after the jury found its employee, Mazzuca, was not liable.

ROBINSON V. MAZZUCA ET AL.

Court:

U.S. District Court, Greenbelt

Case No.:

PJM07-CV-0150

Judge:

Peter J. Messitte

Outcome:

Defense jury verdict

Dates:

Event: March 28, 2006

Suit filed: Jan. 18, 2007

Trial dates: Sept. 23-30, 2010

Plaintiff’s Attorneys:

Joseph Cammarata and Allan M. Siegel of Chaikin, Sherman, Cammarata & Siegel PC of Washington, D.C.

Defendants’ Attorney:

Paul F. Leonard Jr., associate Montgomery County attorney, of Rockville.

Counts:

Section 1983; assault and battery; negligent hiring, training, supervision and retention; and loss of consortium.