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Cops Busted for Kidnapping
April 2, 2011 permalink
A San Jose jury has awarded $3.2M to parents Tracy Watson and Renee Stalker after police kidnapped their children and placed them in foster care. Juries do not like baby-stealers.
San Jose ordered to pay $3.2M in child seizure suit
In the largest recent judgment against San Jose police, a federal jury on Friday awarded a family $3.25 million after siding with the parents, who accused officers of stealing their young children and placing them in protective custody.
The award came two days after a U.S. District Court jury in San Jose ruled that detective William Hoyt and Sgt. Craig Blank violated the constitutional rights of Tracy Watson, Renee Stalker and their children after the officers entered their home without a warrant in 2005 and seized the children, who were kept from their parents for more than a year.
"It's the most horrific thing (that) no parent should ever have to go through, no child should ever have to go through," Watson, 49, a marketer who now lives in Napa, said Friday. The "police charging into your house, stealing your kids."
At the time, police had become alarmed by the strange sexual behavior exhibited by the family's 8-year-old daughter, and the father's lack of cooperation during their abuse investigation. But the family argued the girl had never told investigators she had been molested, and there was no evidence of abuse.
City Attorney Rick Doyle said it was the largest settlement against the police department in his 15 years defending the city. He argued the settlement was excessive and is considering appealing.
Doyle said the 8-year-old daughter had masturbated in her Evergreen School District classroom and talked strangely, mentioning she was taking baths with her father, who refused to cooperate with authorities. Although Doyle acknowledged officers "probably" should have obtained a warrant before entering the home, he said police have the right to retrieve the children if they are in immediate danger.
"If you don't do anything and something happens, then you're second guessed for being negligent," Doyle said, citing the horrific Jaycee Lee Dugard case where a young girl had been kidnapped and abused for years in Antioch before officers discovered her. "It sort of puts the police in 'you're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't.' "
On June 29, 2005, Hoyt, Blank, five other police officers and county social workers came to the family's home on Braden Court and entered without a search warrant. The 3-year-old autistic son and an infant boy were home with their grandmother, and Doyle said officials could not reach the mother -- who was in the hospital for surgery -- and thought Watson was with the girl.
So they placed the boys into the custody of county child protective services, and then did the same with the girl the next day.
But Watson believes he was targeted because he had hired an attorney after a feud with the school district. He denies the girl had been doing anything sexual.
Even so, a San Jose municipal court judge ruled the officers acted correctly in taking the kids. It wasn't until the family moved to Napa County in 2006 -- nearly 1½ years after the initial seizure -- that social workers there reviewed the case and quickly returned the children to the family, said their attorney, Peter Johnson of Walnut Creek.
In 2007, the family sued the city, police, the county, the school district and several officials. The family settled with the county and school officials for an undisclosed amount.
The case against the city, however, went to trial last month, with jurors unanimously deciding that the officers did not have enough evidence to justify taking the kids and entering the home without a search warrant.
The jury found that the officers had violated the family's 4th Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure, and their 14th Amendment rights against government prohibiting "life, liberty or property" without taking proper measures. Jurors awarded financial penalties plus $2 million in punitive damages, which are designed to punish defendants for intentional wrongdoing.
They also found the city did not properly train its officers, but not in a "deliberately indifferent" way.
Watson said although he feels vindicated by the ruling, it's been a struggle to get his family back together since being reunited.
"What's normal after that?" he said. "You try, but you're always a little edgy around cops after that. You just are. Your whole sense of safety as a family has just been violated."
Source: San Jose Mercury News