St. Paul joins the hit parade

On Wednesday the St. Paul City Council approved paying out $115,000 to resident Patrick Fearing and his attorneys to settle a civil rights case filed three years earlier.

In July, Fearing won a rare victory in U.S. District Court when jurors determined that officers Jason Bain and David Stokes used excessive force while arresting Fearing on New Year's Eve of 2001. The officers were cleared on additional claims of assault and battery, while a third cop was determined to have done nothing wrong.

The case stemmed from a run-in late on New Year's Eve when officers showed up at Fearing's house to investigate a report of shots fired. Fearing, however, had merely been shooting off firecrackers with his three daughters. According to Fearing's version of events, as detailed in federal court filings, the officers threw him off a porch, broke his ribs, and slammed his face against the frozen ground roughly ten times. The city maintained throughout the case that the officers feared for their safety and used appropriate force.

The jury verdict is notable because its the first time since at least 1998 that St. Paul has lost a civil rights case. Between 1998 and 2004 the city successfully defended 28 cases. During that same time period the city settled 29 cases before trial for just over $800,000. It was also the first case this year that the city has paid out on, according to assistant city attorney Patrick Villaume III.

By contrast the City of Minneapolis has disbursed more than $10-million over the past decade to citizens claiming to have been abused by the police and more than $1-million this year alone. (See this July CP cover story, "Hit Parade Revisited.")

Attorney Jill Clark, who represented Fearing, says that an audio recording of the arrest, taped by one of the officers, played a key role in convincing jurors that her client's claims were credible. It also probably didn't hurt that Fearing is white, unlike most people who file police brutality claims.

Clark says that her client was simply happy to get an opportunity to describe what happened that night. "When the process works correctly it's cathartic," she says. "He wanted to tell his story."