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Thursday, November 26, 2009
Ex-Officer Awarded $662,000
By Scott Sandlin
Journal Staff Writer
SANTA FE Retaliating against an officer who spoke out against perceived misconduct by sheriff's deputies will cost the city of Albuquerque close to $1 million.
A federal jury in Santa Fe awarded $662,000 Wednesday to a former Albuquerque police officer who claimed management action and inaction hounded him off the force after 23 years because he breached the "blue wall of silence" about police misconduct.
A Santa Fe jury of six men and two women deliberated for a day before returning a verdict in favor of Sam Costales, who said he was forced to quit because of retaliation he suffered after testifying for the defense in the trial of Al Unser Sr. in 2006.
"This is a great victory for me and all police officers," Costales said after the verdict was returned late Wednesday. "Maybe officers won't be afraid to come forward now. ... This is one small step in a big process."
Jurors found Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz had violated Costales' First Amendment rights to free speech, and the city, through the Police Department, is liable for the damages.
The jury rejected the defamation claim against Schultz stemming from comments he made to a Journal reporter. The defamation claim required a finding of malice and proof by "clear and convincing evidence," a high legal standard.
The jury also opted not to award the punitive damages Costales' attorneys had sought.
"This is terrific. This is a great, great verdict," said Costales' attorney, Randi McGinn. "We're very happy, and Sam was crying (as the verdict was read). The jury stood up for the honest officers."
Deputy City Attorney Kathryn Levy said the city is disappointed with the verdict.
"We believe it goes against a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision dealing with the liability of supervisors. Chief Schultz supports and has always supported the men and women of the Albuquerque Police Department."
During the past two weeks, the jury heard testimony from a police procedures expert about the "blue wall of silence," a practice APD brass said was fiction and Costales' witnesses said was part of the culture of the department.
Much of the trial focus, particularly with regard to the defamation claim, was on Journal articles quoting Schultz saying he would look into complaints by Sheriff Darren White about Costales' appearance at the Unser trial in Metropolitan Court. According to trial testimony, Schultz was unaware Costales would testify about what he believed was rude and unprofessional conduct by Bernalillo County sheriff's deputies during an August 2006 roadblock next to Unser's property.
Costales said he'd seen deputies throw Unser to the ground and twist his arm, and they had been rude and coarse with motorists who approached the roadblock. He said he told his lieutenant the next day. His trial testimony was at odds with that of the deputies, but a jury cleared Unser.
Afterward, however, White called Costales' testimony "fiction," and postings critical of Costales began appearing on the Albuquerque Police Officers Association Web site, including one exchange between the union secretary and White that became the subject of another Journal article.
Costales said the considerable physical and emotional distress led him to seek a hardship transfer, but the position he sought was eliminated as one requiring a sworn officer, and eventually he found himself mysteriously assigned to one of the supervisors who had posted comments critical of him on the union Web site.
Because the lawsuit was brought as a civil rights action, Costales also is entitled to attorney's fees. McGinn estimated those at more than $200,000, though the final accounting must be approved by Chief U.S. District Judge Martha Vázquez, who presided over the trial.
Costales also sued White and James Badway, the former union secretary who posted negative comments. Those claims were settled before trial. But outgoing Mayor Martin Chávez has enforced a no-settlement policy in police cases, reasoning that juries should decide such matters.