The family of a black teenager who was punched and handcuffed by three South Bend police officers then subdued with a stun gun in a case of mistaken identity is questioning why jurors awarded them just $18 in a lawsuit accusing the officers of violating his constitutional rights.
"We're black, so we automatically lose," the young man's father, Dan Franklin, told the South Bend Tribune. "The boy should've got something — they punched him, shot him in the side with a Taser gun — but we had nobody on our side."
In its Aug. 1 verdict, the federal jury in Fort Wayne ordered the three officers to each pay DeShawn Franklin and his parents $1 each for violating their constitutional protection against unlawful entry and another $1 each for violating their constitutional protection against unlawful seizure, for a total of $18.
The jury rejected claims of false arrest or false imprisonment and battery.
In July 2012, officers responded to an early morning domestic violence call. A 31-year-old woman told police her boyfriend, who was Franklin's older brother, assaulted her. She gave officers a description of a slim black male with dreadlocks. She told them he was headed to his parents' house.
Franklin's mother answered the door and officers, guns drawn, forced their way inside. They found DeShawn Franklin, then 17, in bed and thought he was their suspect. Officers tried to handcuff the still-sleeping teenager who, startled, jumped out of bed and lunged at them. He was punched three times in the face and the officers used a stun gun. They realized after putting him in a police car that they had the wrong man. His brother was never arrested.
The officers apologized to DeShawn Franklin and acknowledged their actions were appropriate, according to a police report.
"Nobody's constitutional rights should be worth a dollar — it doesn't matter the color of your skin," DeShawn Franklin said.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg said the city made the family five offers to settle the case, including one of $15,000.
City attorney Peter Agostino said the Franklins failed to prove damages beyond the rights violations, saying no wages were lost or medical bills incurred.
"Without any evidence of that or similar damages, there's nothing to base an award on," Agostino said. "So you're left with a nominal award of $1."
Agostino said the Franklins' attorney should have told them to settle.
Johnny Ulmer, the family's attorney, said such cases can be worth up to $300,000 and that the city never offered more than $10,000.
"If they would have put an amount on the table that I felt was appropriate, we would have settled it," Ulmer told The Indianapolis Star. "What happened that night, the physical abuse that DeShawn suffered — they were slapping my clients in the face with the offer they put out there."
City spokesman Kevin Lawler says the officers were disciplined, including written reprimands and that they received additional training on Fourth Amendment rights. He said the police force developed a new procedure manual and provided ethics and diversity classes for the entire force.