A federal jury on Thursday found an off-duty Honolulu police officer innocent of violating a neighbor’s rights.
Officer Benjamin Perez, a Honolulu Police Department veteran of more than 15 years, had tears in his eyes when a U.S. District Court jury exonerated him of using excessive force. He told Civil Beat he was “grateful” but also “disappointed” that he had to endure so much “just for doing my job”. Perez left Judge Susan Mollway’s courtroom after hugging his wife and child.
“I’m glad it’s over,” he said.
Civil Beat tracked the case as part of our coverage of the Honolulu Police Department.
The plaintiff in the civil case, Anthony Tucker, sued Perez for allegedly violating Tucker’s Fourth Amendment rights. Perez used pepper spray to subdue Tucker and Tucker’s son, Anthony Jr., during an argument almost four years ago.
The case was marked by inconsistencies in the officer’s statements to police and the alleged use of racial slurs by another neighbor against the plaintiff, who is African American.
Tucker’s son told Civil Beat he thought the jury could not look past Perez’s position as a police officer to render a fair ruling.
“No matter if the person behind the badge was bad, they never look past it,” Anthony, Jr. said. “The guy could be the dirtiest guy. Just because of the badge, they outweigh a civilian automatically… Just because they have that badge, that doesn’t make them above us. We should be on the same level.”
In August 2007, Perez intervened as Tucker argued with another neighbor, John Viernes, in a parking lot about a damaged car mirror.
Perez, who was off-duty, demanded that they “knock it off”. Perez said Tucker and his son didn’t listen and grew violent, so he pepper sprayed them.
Tucker said he experienced a burning sensation and had trouble tasting his food for two weeks after the incident.
During the argument, Tucker said Viernes and his wife used racial slurs. Tucker’s attorney, Shawn Luiz, said in his closing argument Thursday that Viernes said to Tucker: “Boy, I’ll kick your ass boy.”
Tucker says neither he nor his family ever attacked anyone, but that Perez came out of nowhere and grabbed Tucker’s son from behind, threw him on the pavement and pepper sprayed him at point-blank range. Tucker says he too was then pushed to the ground by Perez and pepper sprayed.
Perez’s description of the incident changed over time. In an August 2007 police report, Perez didn’t mention that punches were thrown at him. In a May 2010 report, Perez changed his statement, saying both Tucker and his son had tried to attack him.
He says that after finishing a night shift, he went to sleep and woke at noon to a scuffle outside. Perez radioed for backup using his police radio.
Perez says the confrontation between his neighbors was about to become violent when he stepped in. He took his police badge, a radio and pepper spray. Perez says that while the Viernes family backed off from the fight, Tucker told the officer “This doesn’t involve you.”
Perez says that Tucker tried to get around him to attack the Viernes’. Perez says both Tucker and his son threw punches, at which point he pepper sprayed them.
Tucker sought monetary damages in the case, claiming his Fourth Amendment rights were violated by Perez and that “excessive force” was used.
The jury began deliberations around 11:30 Thursday morning. They rendered their verdict in less than three hours.
Tucker was disappointed by the decision.
“In heart we won but on paper they won,” Tucker told Civil Beat.
Tucker’s attorney was surprised by the outcome, especially in light of inconsistencies in Perez’s official statements between August 2007 and May 2010.
“I would have thought the inconsistencies between the police reports would have produced a different result but unfortunately it did not,” Luiz said. He told Civil Beat, at this point, he does not anticipate an appeal.