Rochester, NY – A man who sued the Rochester Police Department (RPD) for allegedly using excessive force during his 2013 arrest has been awarded $1 by a federal jury.
Benny Warr filed the lawsuit against Rochester Police Officers Joseph Ferrigno, Mitchell Stewart, and Anthony Liberatore after he was arrested for disorderly conduct on May 1, 2013, the Democrat & Chronicle reported.
He also named now-former Rochester Police Chief James Sheppard in the lawsuit, and alleged that Chief Sheppard failed to supervise the three officers who arrested him, the Democrat & Chronicle reported.
Warr, who is confined to a wheelchair and uses a prosthetic leg, said he was peacefully eating an ice cream cone at approximately 8 p.m., when officers drove past and told a crowd nearby to disperse.
He claimed he then crossed the street to wait for a bus, when he was confronted by Officer Ferrigno and Officer Liberatore.
The officers told him to leave, but he insisted that he was waiting for the bus, Warr testified.
That’s when the officers began mercilessly beating him, he claimed.
He denied having fought back, and said he curled into a fetal position after being knocked out of his wheelchair and onto the ground.
“It was just happening so fast that I couldn’t really see anything,” Warr testified.
Warr alleged that the altercation left him with a brain injury and three fractured ribs, and said that he now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
But according to police, Warr began causing a disturbance immediately after they initially asked the loitering crowd to disperse that night.
He allegedly hurled profanities at them before he crossed the street, then continued his vulgar tirade when Officer Ferrigno and Officer Liberatore approached him at the bus stop.
The area is a rampant illegal drug hub, and Warr’s antics soon drew an unruly crowd, police said.
As the officers went to arrest Warr for disorderly conduct, the 250-pound man allegedly started to fight their efforts.
They were initially unable to gain control of his arms during the physical altercation that ensued, and Warr tumbled out of the chair after he was pepper sprayed.
The officers said they kneed the combative man in the abdomen, and that Officer Liberatore struck Warr in the head with his elbow while fighting to subdue him.
Investigators determined that the officers did not use excessive force during the encounter, and that they followed policy throughout the incident.
The court later gave Warr an “adjournment in contemplation of dismissal” for his disorderly conduct offense, which allows the charge to be dismissed if he does not commit a new offense within six months, the Democrat & Chronicle reported.
During trial, Rochester City Attorney Spencer Ash confronted Warr about his alleged injuries, and noted that Warr was previously a drug addict who suffered from chronic pain.
Ash pointed out that medical records from the night of Warr’s arrest indicated he had some abrasions, but did not mention the traumatic brain injury and broken ribs he claimed to have suffered.
"Why is there not one picture to present of how badly you were beaten and injured?” Ash asked him during the trial.
"I don't know," Warr answered.
Warr’s attorney, Charles Burkwit, claimed that the officers became upset after Warr wouldn’t leave the bus stop, and alleged that they later concocted a story to cover up the beating.
“This was a planned attack,” Burkwit said in court. “They were not going to take ‘no’ for an answer.”
On Jan. 31, U.S. Magistrate Judge Marian Payson dismissed Warr’s claims against former Chief Sheppard.
The jury determined on Monday that Warr was not wrongfully arrested, and cleared Officer Stewart and Officer Ferrigno of the excessive force allegations leveled against them, the Democrat & Chronicle reported.
The jurors concluded that Officer Liberatore, who was accused of pushing Warr out of the wheelchair, used excessive force during the encounter, but that Warr was not harmed by the action.
The jury awarded Warr $1 for nominal damages, but declined to award compensatory or punitive damages.
"Obviously we were all in shock," Burkwit told the Democrat & Chronicle. "What's the point of a making a punitive damages finding if you're not going to award any money?"
“What threat can a man in a wheelchair be to the police?” he added.
He said that the outcome of the case was “an inconsistent verdict,” and said he plans to ask the court to set the verdict aside.
"An appeal is always an option as well," he added. "Due to the shocking nature of the award, at this point we need to let a little time go by and let the court address the verdict."
“Our legal system is designed to compensate those who have been wrongfully injured,” Burkwit complained to WXXI. “Here you have a case where Mr. Warr clearly was injured and the system failed.”