A federal jury awarded $7 million in damages to a woman who said she was sexually assaulted by a deputy sheriff in a First Circuit Court cellblock in Honolulu in 2014.
Elizabeth Mueller was in HOPE probation, a drug probation program, when she alleges she was assaulted during an illegal strip search by Freddie Carabbacan, a deputy sheriff who was sergeant of the courthouse cellblock at the time.
An internal investigation into the incident substantiated Mueller’s claims and found that Carabbacan violated departmental policies governing searches of inmates. Male sheriffs are prohibited from searching female inmates.
Carabbacan was fired in 2015, but a third party arbitrator awarded him his job back in 2016.
Mueller sued the state Department of Public Safety, its former director Nolan Espinda, and Carabbacan in 2017. She alleged that they subjected her to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the U.S. Constitution and failed to properly train sheriffs.
Attorneys wrapped up their cases Friday and the jury was excused around noon. The jury, which included seven women and one man, deliberated for just two hours before reaching a unanimous verdict.
“We are very grateful for the verdict by the jury,” Lanson Kupau, Mueller’s attorney, said. “This case was important to give victims of sexual abuse a voice, and to hold power accountable.”
The jury ruled in favor of Mueller against the state in the civil lawsuit. Criminal charges were never filed against Carabbacan.
Details on how liability for the $7 million in damages was apportioned to each defendant was not immediately available because Hawaii’s federal case filing system was down for scheduled maintenance on Friday. Details were expected to be made public Monday.
Deputy Attorney General Marie Gavigan, who represented the state and Espinda, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Carabbacan didn’t retain an attorney for this case and said he felt that he didn’t need one. He denied that his searches of women constituted sex assault.
“I feel my record is clean,” he said in a phone interview. “I have nothing to hide.”
Carabbacan didn’t make an appearance in the jury trial, which began Oct. 28, and he wasn’t present in the courtroom Friday. Espinda sat at the end of a table near his attorneys.
Mueller was also present with Kupau. Senior Judge Hellen Gillmor presided over the civil trial.
In his closing arguments, Kupau described DPS as a “rolling thunder of incompetence.”
Gavigan argued that the state shouldn’t be held liable for what happened to Mueller because Espinda took steps to fire Carabbacan, and was forced to reinstate him because of his union contract.
During her closing argument, Gavigan acknowledged that Carabbacan’s searches of women were inappropriate. But, she said Mueller never raised emotional issues during a meeting with a therapist four years after the 2014 incident.
“She may have had emotional distress in the beginning, but did director Espinda cause that? Was it severe emotional distress? No,” Gavigan said.
Jurors disagreed, and awarded damages, in part, for both negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress by Carabbacan and the state.
On rebuttal, Kupau called Gavigan’s arguments “gaslighting” and pleaded with the jurors to hold the state accountable and force it to “own up when they do something wrong.”
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Blaze Lovell is spending a year as a local investigations fellow with The New York Times. He was previously a reporter for Civil Beat. Born and raised on Oahu, Lovell is a graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. You can reach him at email@example.com.