MARIETTA – Although the county wasn’t named as a party to the federal civil-rights suit filed this week against two Cobb police officers, taxpayers are still likely to foot the bill – and it could be a hefty one. The county’s Internal Affairs department is also now investigating the incident.
On Monday, lawyers at the Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, Ala., filed suit on behalf of Angel Francisco Castro-Torres against Jeremiah Lignitz and Brian J. Walraven. The suit alleges that Lignitz and Walraven, who are both Cobb police officers, stopped Castro-Torres without cause on March 26 – violating his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure – beat him, arrested him and took him to Cobb County Jail, where he would end up in immigration custody.
In his report made at the time of the arrest, Walraven wrote that Castro-Torres was wearing gang attire, and that “the Hispanic male failed to yield and entered the crosswalk with his bicycle and almost struck our patrol car.” That report also notes that the man repeatedly refused to give his date of birth, tried to break away and attempted to grab Lignitz’s Taser.
Lignitz’s report notes: “I struck the male with my forearm in the face to make him release his grip on my Taser.”
While still in custody at the Cobb Jail on misdemeanor charges of obstruction, Castro-Torres underwent surgery at Northwest Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery on April 8 to repair his left eye socket and his nose. The Cobb’s Sheriff’s Office paid the $2,600 surgery bill, sheriff’s Col. Don Bartlett said.
The civil-rights suit filed Monday in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia specifies that Lignitz and Walraven are being sued only “in their individual capacities,” and they are the only defendants named in the suit, which seeks unspecified damages.
“Violating an innocent man’s civil rights carries no price tag,” said Sam Brooke, one of the lawyers at the SPLC who filed the suit. “The 287(g) program does not work and needs to end. In the meantime, every member of law enforcement who operates within an area where these type of programs are in place need to know they can not violate someone’s civil rights.”
As of late Thursday, a check of the federal courts’ online filing system indicated the officers had not yet been served with the suit. They have 20 days from the day they are served to file a response.
After the suit was announced, Cobb Police Chief John Houser requested an Internal Affairs investigation of the officers and the arrest, county spokesman Robert Quigley said.
Lance LoRusso, a lawyer who represents the state Fraternal Order of Police as well as the local lodge in Cobb County, said the defense of such civil-rights cases is “extremely expensive.”
“Whether these officers are cleared, the way this was drafted was intended to create a financial burden on these officers to defend the case,” LoRusso said. “They’re trying to make these officers pay a tremendous amount of money. And if there’s a judgment against them, it likely would be paid by Cobb County, because they’re acting as employees.”
Any such judgment could also include the plaintiff’s legal bills, which LoRusso said could easily be at least $100,000.
Because the two officers were on duty at the time of the alleged incident, the county expects to provide lawyers for them, the county’s spokesman said.
“It is our intent in this case to provide legal representation to the officers,” spokesman Robert Quigley said.
Brooke, of the SPLC, said his group – and the other five lawyers representing Castro-Torres – are not seeking damages directly from the county or the police department.
“(Castro-Torres) is seeking to recover damages from these two individuals. On paper and what will be told to jury is that these two are the ones who any damage amount would come from,” Brooke said. “It’s these two officers who violated his Constitutional rights. They had the discretion, the opportunity to either pull him over without cause and assault him, or not. And it’s for that violation that they are being sued.”
Lignitz has been with Cobb Police just over three years, and Walraven has been an officer for nearly 10 years, a police spokesman said.
The advocacy group claims in the suit that the two officers stopped Castro-Torres about 4:30 p.m. on March 26, as he was riding a bicycle near the intersection of South Cobb Drive and Old Concord Road. He spoke little English, the suit notes, but the officers continued to question him about his immigration status and did not seek an interpreter.
“The defendants stopped and arrested Mr. Casto because of his Latino race and ethnicity, from which they inferred that he was a noncitizen,” the suit states.
The officers did not appear in Cobb State Court to testify in the obstruction case against Castro-Torres – even after Judge Toby Prodgers issued subpoenas for them to do so – and on Aug. 10 the case was dismissed, both the suit and State Court records indicate.
At Tuesday’s county commissioners’ meeting, anti-illegal immigration activist D.A. King called on the commissioners “to publicly vote on a resolution to reaffirm support of sheriff’s use of federal 287(g) program, and further, to express their support of the two officers who have been smeared by the parasitic hucksters at the SPLC and the open-border communists at the National Lawyers Guild, which is the main organization of the National Immigration Project.”