By Kevin G. Little
On Nov. 27, 2013, after two hours of deliberation, a nine-person federal jury awarded Isaac Miller of Lemoore $500,000 against Hanford police officer Steven Schmitz, finding that the veteran cop violated Miller’s civil rights by maliciously prosecuting him on felony assault charges.
The federal lawsuit arose from a Feb. 6, 2011, arrest of Miller on charges that he committed felony assault causing bodily injury to Ronald Silva, also of Lemoore. The alleged assault occurred almost a year before Miller’s arrest, on Feb. 17, 2010, at Chili’s restaurant in Hanford.
During the federal lawsuit, Miller presented evidence that Schmitz initially declined to follow up on Silva’s allegations, but reconsidered once he learned that Silva was a relative of Kings County Sheriff’s Sgt. David Dodd. Dodd is Silva’s nephew. Miller also presented evidence that Schmitz recommended charges against him without performing a reasonable investigation, despite numerous contradictions and inconsistencies in Silva’s allegations.
The testimony presented during the seven-day trial established that Schmitz did not take many investigative steps often taken under similar circumstances, including attempting to contact and interview employees and patrons who might have witnessed the incident. The incident was reported to have occurred in the parking lot outside of Chili’s during business hours.
The pivotal evidence in the case was the testimony of a Chili’s bartender, Mike Signorile, who now lives in Natomas. Signorile worked at the Hanford Chili’s at the time of the incident, and he spoke with Schmitz shortly after the alleged incident and advised him that there had been no fight, despite Silva’s repeated efforts to provoke one. Schmitz did not include Signorile’s statement in his report, which was relied on by the Kings County District Attorney’s Office in handling the criminal case against Miller.
Miller’s criminal case was dismissed on Jan. 23, 2012, the day it was supposed to proceed to trial. During the criminal case, leads provided by Signorile led to the discovery of numerous witnesses who likewise indicated there had been no fight. Instead, these witnesses, who were all patrons or employees of Chili’s the night of the incident, all reported that Silva was intoxicated and injured himself when he attempted to attack Miller and fell in the parking lot. Those witnesses caused the District Attorney to reconsider and dismiss all charges.
Had Miller been convicted of the charges against him, he would have faced up to seven years in prison. The evidence at trial showed that Miller and his wife had their first child shortly after he was required to first appear in criminal court.
During the federal trial, Miller presented evidence from Signorile and several other witnesses who contradicted Silva’s account. Miller also presented medical evidence during the federal trial that indicated Silva’s injuries were incurred as a result of his falling rather than an assault.
Miller was awarded damages for the stress of being prosecuted for nearly a year and for incurring more than $100,000 in legal expenses. Miller also missed considerable time at work attending court proceedings.
Miller’s verdict was reduced by $35,000, which was the amount paid him by Silva as part of a stipulated judgment as to the claims between those parties.
As a result of the jury’s verdict, the federal judge who presided over the trial, Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill, ordered the City of Hanford to expunge all records related to Miller’s arrest and prosecution.
Miller was represented in the federal trial and criminal matter by Kevin G. Little and Alex Chechelnik of Fresno. Schmitz and the City of Hanford were represented by Daniel L. Wainwright and Ryan D. Marshall of McCormick Barstow, LLP.
Kevin G. Little is a Fresno-based attorney. Contact him at 559-412-6050 or firstname.lastname@example.org.