FAIRFIELD — The city should appeal a federal court judge’s decision that Fairfield pay $316,750 in fees and costs to attorneys representing three customers police arrested at the In-N-Out on Holiday Lane, Councilwoman Catherine Moy says.
“It’s just excessive,” she said. “We have better use of that money.”
Moy said she’ll urge the council to join her in challenging the order Monday by U.S. District Judge Dale Drozd, who presided at the 2013 civil trial in Sacramento over the July 4, 2009, incident when four college students arrived at the In-N-Out just before 1 a.m.
Three of the four people filed a suit contending false arrest and interference with constitutional rights. A jury in 2013 found the arrests for trespassing were without probable cause but did not involve malice or reckless disregard for the trio’s rights. The federal jury awarded the plaintiffs $12,150.
Oakland attorney Garret Murai, who with another attorney represented the students, said Thursday that the three felt an injustice was done and that they were racially profiled because they’re African-American.
Jude Drozd wrote that it was undisputed that the three were not part of a disturbance that the In-N-Out manager reported to police involving young black males and females, Judge Drozd wrote.
A police dispatcher had reported patrons throwing food and refusing to leave. The restaurant manager mistakenly told the arriving officers that the college students were involved in the disturbance, Murai said.
“It doesn’t matter what the manager says, the police have a duty to establish probable cause,” the attorney said of the arrests that followed.
The students exited the In-N-Out at the instruction of officers and were arrested after they didn’t leave the parking lot, according to court records. They were handcuffed, put into a police van and photographed. The students were released from the county jail at 10 a.m. that morning and faced charges of criminal trespass that were later dismissed.
Murai said the students, who have since completed college, sought justice rather than money in the matter.
In-N-Out, in a separate settlement, paid $180,000.
“The city fought us,” Murai said, “for the past four years.”
Fairfield had offered plaintiffs $15,000 two years before the 2013 jury trial, according to court records.
Gale Spears, spokeswoman for the city of Fairfield, said representatives of the city manager’s office were not available for comment Thursday.
“We only know what’s in the ruling,” Spears said of the federal court judge’s decision.
Councilwoman Moy said the city manager’s office sent an email Wednesday advising that The Sacramento Bee, which reported the judge’s award to attorneys, was inquiring about the case.
Moy said the Fairfield Police Department does not racially profile people.
“We have great police officers,” she said. “They thought they were doing the right thing.”
“I don’t think it had to do with race,” Moy added of the case. “It was just a misidentification by the manager.”
Councilman John Mraz said he’s surprised by the amount the federal judge granted attorneys.
“That’s incredible,” he said. “I’m not happy.”
“Anytime we have to pay out any amount of money,” Mraz said, “it’s not a good thing for the city.”
“We’re using the people’s money,” he said.
Councilwoman Pam Bertani said the city must determine if the appeal can succeed.
“We have to review the record,” she said. “Our next step is to do just that.”
Attorney Murai said the federal judge, along with granting fees, ruled Monday against Fairfield’s request for a new trial in the case.
“Finally, our clients have been vindicated,” the attorney said.
Surveillance cameras at the restaurant and a cellphone video taken by another customer were shown at the trial, Murai said. The video showed several young black men and women leaving just as police arrived.
Judge Drozd said the tape depicts a busy dining room but no evidence of a disturbance.
Murai said the video record supports his clients and avoids the uncertainty surrounding many law enforcement-related lawsuits.
“A lot of these police cases rely on a he-said, she-said scenario,” he said.
Two of his clients in the In-N-Out case grew up in Fairfield, Murai said, but to this day are uncomfortable around police.
“And that’s really sad to hear that coming from young people of any color,” the attorney said.
For a lot of people their age, Murai said, the civil rights movement is something that they hear about in history. But despite the great strides America has made on racial matters, he said, problems involving race are not all in our past.
“Unfortunately, that’s not the case even today,” Murai said.
The attorney said Judge Drozd’s decision grants about half of the $692,870 sought by lawyers for fees and costs representing plaintiffs in the case.
Murai said he would not be surprised if Fairfield appealed the judge’s decision but doubts the city would prevail.
“They’re going to have a hard time,” he said. “It is very difficult to overturn a judge’s order.”
Drozd in his decision said when applying standards for fees, he is aware of guidance from the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco.
“Lawyers must eat, so they generally won’t take cases without a reasonable prospect of getting paid,” the circuit court has said.
Reach Ryan McCarthy at 427-6935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.