Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Judge Rules For OH Tow Truck Operator In Suit Against Cleveland

Here's the story from The Plain Dealer:
CLEVELAND — A tow truck operator who sued Cleveland claiming officials destroyed his business and trampled his name is one step closer to making the city pay.

U.S. District Judge James Gwin ruled Tuesday that Cleveland police violated Jose Rodriguez's rights when they searched his property, confiscated his entire fleet of tow trucks and arrested him on two separate occasions in July 2006 -- all without a warrant or probable cause.

Rodriguez is asking for at least $5 million as atonement for the series of events that sent him spiraling into financial ruin.

A city spokeswoman said Wednesday that the city's lawyers are prepared to counter Rodriguez's claims for damages.

Rodriguez was in the process of buying M&M Auto Body and Towing on Harvard Avenue when police arrested him based solely upon information from an anonymous source that Rodriguez had received stolen property.

Officers told the 37-year-old entrepreneur they were conducting an annual inspection. They roamed the property and examined vehicles in the impound lot, he said last year. Ten minutes later, Rodriguez was handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser.

Police said a 2004 Ford dump truck on his property didn't belong to Rodriguez, and they seized it along with four tow trucks. Rodriguez, who had never been arrested before, spent a weekend in jail before being released on $15,000 bail.

Police showed up again at M&M days later -- this time with news camera crews from three local television stations. Officers arrested him again for possession of criminal tools, including a floor jack, a tool chest and a welding torch. They seized the remaining tow trucks on the property, shutting down the company completely. Police refused to return Rodriguez's fleet in the months before his trial date.

When the case went to trial in January 2007, Cuyahoga Common Pleas Judge Joan Synenberg acquitted Rodriguez because police could not provide evidence that he had knowingly received a stolen dump truck. Rodriguez provided titles and ownership documents proving that he believed he rightfully owned all the confiscated vehicles.

Synenberg ordered police to return the rest of his trucks immediately. But by then Rodriguez's business was in shambles, and he had lost a management job at a factory over the media frenzy that accompanied his second arrest.

Rodriguez filed his lawsuit in federal court in August.

"All he has ever wanted to do is make a living working hard and live a proper life," said Rodriguez's attorney, Edward LaRue, who also represented him during the criminal trial. "But that's been denied him by the actions of those empowered to serve and protect."

Rodriguez could not be reached to comment Wednesday.

Gwin dismissed some of the claims against the city, including that the police's conduct and disregard for due process were malicious and that officers intentionally inflicted emotional distress on Rodriguez.

But several issues remain for a jury to resolve. Among those are whether the city failed to properly train its police officers to obtain warrants and whether police routinely circumvent department policy and the law by using the label "administrative inspections" to describe warrantless searches.

Also, a jury will determine if the city was harassing and retaliating against Rodriguez when it denied his application for a city tow truck license and interfered with his state vehicle registration earlier this year.

The trial is scheduled to begin June 16.

No comments: