Legal Newsline

Monday, October 14, 2019

California court: 'No reasonable suspicion' to detain police officer trainee

By John Sammon | Nov 24, 2017

SAN FRANCISCO  (Legal Newsline) – The First District Court of Appeal in California on Nov. 16 affirmed a trial court decision that awarded more than $575,000 in damages plus attorney fees to a police cadet trainee after he was arrested by officers from his own department.

It turned out Bret Cornell was only out for a jog. Cornell sued the city of San Francisco and although the defendants argued that the trial jury had erred, the First District Appellate Court disagreed.

"We agree with the trial court that there was no reasonable suspicion to detain and hence no probable cause to arrest," the order stated.

According to the order, in July 2010, Cornell, a recent graduate of the police academy employed by the San Francisco Police Department as a field officer trainee, went for a morning jog in Golden Gate Park dressed in civilian clothing. He stopped to rest on Hippie Hill and was noticed by on-duty officers in a police cruiser, the order states.

The order states Hippie Hill is considered a high crime area and officers David Brandt and Richard “Brett” Bodisco had made numerous narcotics arrests in the area. There had also been a homicide just a few days before.

The officers thought Cornell looked worried and suspicious and decided to question him, the order states, but did not activate lights or use a loudspeaker. As the officers approached Cornell he began walking away from them, and then broke into a run down the hill. The officers decided to detain him and gave chase, the order states.

Bodisco chased the suspect on foot while Brandt followed in the squad car and a call was made for additional officers to respond.

Cornell, who later testified he did not recognize the men as officers and thought he was running from an unknown armed attacker and who heard the words “I will shoot you,” tripped and fell down a heavily wooded slope into AIDS Memorial Grove, the order states.

An additional officer, Sgt. Wallace Gin, intercepted Cornell. Cornell saw Gin and thinking he had found protection, approached him, but Gin ordered him to stop and put his hands up. Cornell was arrested without putting up resistance. A search of the handcuffed suspect turned up nothing, and no criminal charges were brought.

Cornell was terminated from continued service with the department as a result of the arrest. He sued the arresting officers and the city of San Francisco for negligence, assault in battery, false arrest and imprisonment.

The case went to trial in October and November 2013.

A jury deadlocked on one of the questions submitted to it but eventually continued the proceeding. The court ruled the officers did not have reasonable suspicion to detain Cornell and that he was arrested without probable cause,

The officers appealed the decision contending the lack of probable cause charge was wrong and that a mistrial should have been declared over the jury deadlock, also that the officers were immune from false arrest and claims for damages should be reversed because of insufficient evidence.  

The appellate court in its opinion disagreed, saying the loss of Cornell’s job as a police trainee was inflicted out of spite and alleged that officers Brandt and Gin were unconcerned whether there was legal cause to arrest Cornell. When they realized their error, they "doubled-down on it, knowing they were inflicting grievous injury on their prisoner," the court stated.

“This apparent effort to obstruct Cornell’s ability to assert his right to freedom from unreasonable seizure violated Section 52.1 just as surely as his actual arrest did,” the court brief read.

The appellate court affirmed the judgment and the awarding of damages and attorney fees to the plaintiff.

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First District Court of Appeal California