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by Mary Shelton
Friday, May. 20, 2005 at 2:57 PM
Shirley Goodwin suffered at the hands of a San Bernardino Police Department officer who stormed her house over a pet violation. Eight years later, she takes him to trial.
By Mary Shelton
Inside U.S. District Judge Robert J. Timlin's courtroom during a recent trial, there was a running joke between himself and the plaintiff, Shirley Goodwin.
Timlin called the retired San Bernardino County Sheriff Department sergeant "Dorothy" several times in court instead of her own name.
Goodwin said she finally told Timlin that the reason he called her Dorothy was because they were in Oz. However, it was not the Emerald City that was on trial, but the city of San Bernardino, courtesy of a civil rights law suit filed by Goodwin.
Central to the trial were two of San Bernardino's most ardent activists, both of whom have spent time in county jail for exceeding the three-minute speaking limit at San Bernardino City Council and San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors meetings. Both activists spent years speaking against corruption in San Bernardino County, a place which has seen more than its share of elected officials and law enforcement officers investigated or indicted by various agencies, including the United States Attorney's office and the State Attorney General's office.
Because of their activism, Goodwin and other activists were arrested and sentenced to jail, often for months at a time for allegedly disrupting public meetings. In response, the California First Amendment Coalition, a governmental watchdog organization, presented the city of San Bernardino five years ago, with its annual Black Hole award in commemoration of the actions the city and county have taken against residents trying to address or criticize their elected officials at public meetings.
Recently, Goodwin had sold the house she had spent most of her life in and left San Bernardino for more peaceful pastures outside the reaches of its police department, which had seemed more concerned about her pet violations, than with the city's astronomical violent crime rate, among the state's highest according to annual statistics from the Department of Justice.
First, however, there was still her long-awaited day in court.
On May 12, closing arguments were presented by both parties in this case which began with an incident between Goodwin and San Bernardino Police Department officer Joseph Shuck in 1997. Shuck had allegedly come to her house in San Bernardino to assist an animal control officer in issuing a ticket to Goodwin for owning a fourth dog, and two that were unlicensed. Minutes later, Shuck was inside her house, had grabbed Goodwin by the wrists and pulled her down to the floor, before handcuffing her. Photographs presented in court showed her injuries including a bruised wrist which had resulted from the tightness of Shuck's grip.
"We can all agree that something went horribly wrong on June 27, 1997," Goodwin's attorney, Andre E. Jardini said to the jury, "A 51-year-old former sheriff deputy with a love for animals suffered from the actions of an inexperienced officer who acted improperly and with anger."
Shuck sat in the courtroom, next to his attorney Joseph Arias, looking arrogant one minute, nervous the next, depending on which side was addressing the jury. Goodwin sat the entire time in her chair, her back to the officer who she was putting on trial. Her eyes remained riveted on the nine-member jury, which would decide the fates of both parties behind closed doors after the lawyers were finished talking. This court date had been a long time coming for Goodwin. She had already faced criminal charges in relation to the incident which were dismissed in court as well as a prior civil trial in 2003 that had ended in a deadlocked jury. Hopefully, this time there would be a better ending for her.
Not surprisingly, Arias had a different view of the incident, which he presented to the jury during his own argument.
"Nobody is above the law," he said, adding that in society, laws are what keep things in order. In both the city of San Bernardino and its county, many residents have wondered if this group of people included either elected officials or law enforcement officers. Electronic diaries known as blogs abound on the Internet discussing various allegations against and investigations into misconduct involving many in local politics from former county supervisor Jerry Eaves, to former County District Attorney Dennis Stout, to the entire San Bernardino Police Department.
Arias, who has long represented San Bernardino and its agencies in civil litigation, still contended that if there were any lawbreakers, they included people like Goodwin, who subjected people in her neighborhood to the possibility of a bite from a rabid dog. He said he could think of nothing more painful than suffering from rabies after being bitten by a loose, unvaccinated dog.
"What is this case about," Arias asked, "A hard-headed, obstinate woman named Shirley Goodwin who flaunted city laws again and again."
Arias said that Shuck was a police officer trying to do his duty, and that the injuries Goodwin suffered at the officer's hands were due to her failure to sign a citation. After all, Shuck had testified during the trial that "when she struck me with the(front)door, that was the straw that broke the camel's back", so Shuck was not responsible for what happened inside the house.
However, Jardini argued that Shuck did not belong inside the house.
He outlined the incident, calling Goodwin's arrest illegal, because Shuck had no probable cause to enter her house and reminding them that Shuck had changed what probable cause he did claim, several times under oath during his deposition and at trial.
"We all want to believe a police officer," Jardini said, "The truth is police officers are just people. They're human beings. They get angry. They act inappropriately. They can be vicious. Thank goodness that's not the norm."
Shuck had entered the threshold of Goodwin's house, while she was on the phone with a relative, who though hundreds of miles away, overheard the whole incident after Goodwin dropped her phone. Also present was the animal control officer, who had stood behind Shuck, but had testified at the trial that no assault and battery committed by Goodwin had taken place in her presence.
After arresting Goodwin, Shuck had called his supervisor, then Sgt. Ernest Lemos to come to the scene, to discuss what criminal charges to use for probable cause for entering Goodwin's residence, Jardini said. Jardini told the jury that Lemos and Shuck had most likely decided that the pet violations were not sufficient enough cause for the arrest to have taken place. The alleged violations did not occur in Shuck's presence nor did they constitute a public offense. At some point, the decision was made to use PC 243(b), battery of a peace officer committed when a screen door allegedly struck Shuck while he was forcing his way in the house. Shuck had testified under oath during an earlier deposition that this was the offense he had intended to arrest Goodwin for committing.
"The screen door is an after-the-fact justification that he works out with Sgt. Lemos," Jardini said, "which comes down to maybe the screen door touched me."
But the animal control officer had also testified that she did not remember seeing the screen door, Jardini said. Shuck had testified that it was Goodwin who had tried to close the screen door to prevent him from coming in the front door, although his body stood between her and the screen door handle.
Jardini added that even several of the department's witnesses including a San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department captain admitted on the stand that they would never have gone into Goodwin's house or arrested her for such a minor thing. So, Jardini said, it later became all about obstructing or delaying a public official or peace officer outside the residence, meaning that Goodwin failed to cooperate with the animal control officer who was issuing her the citation. In fact, he said while the police department and the city had constantly changed its version of events including the intent behind Goodwin's arrest over the past eight years, Goodwin herself had remained consistent with her own account.
"It really mattered to her," Jardini said.
Arias said during his argument that Shuck had only called for Lemos because all acts of force had to be reported to an officer's supervisor under departmental policy. Arias repeatedly reminded the jury of how disturbed he was at the implication that pet violations were minor problems and unimportant.
"These laws were all designed for the public good," Arias said.
After her arrest, Goodwin was taken to a hospital, where Shuck left her chained to a gurney while he went back to her house, for undisclosed reasons. She was later charged battery of a peace officer, a misdemeanor which was later dismissed by a judge who ruled that Shuck was not legally authorized to enter Goodwin's house. Goodwin had received a citation through the mail from the animal control agency regarding her dogs and had taken care of it after she left the hospital.
It was not the first time that Goodwin had been arrested by San Bernardino Police Department officers where a charge of battery of a peace officer had been dismissed due to illegal behavior by the officers. In July 2002, San Bernardino County Superior Court judge Kenneth Barr had ordered that a search warrant in that case be quashed and suppressed after finding that a police detective had altered it, after it had been signed by a magistrate, according to transcript records. A year later, the case was dismissed in the interest of justice, according to court records.
As a result of all she had faced, Goodwin said she left San Bernardino and lives in a more remote region, with vacant land all around, where no one can say that she or her animals are bothering anyone.
Jardini finished his closing argument to the jury by saying that the jury needed to send a message in its verdict that this behavior by police officers is not appropriate.
"It's a small step, but an important one," he said.
However, after two days of deliberation, it is a small step that will have to wait for another day. The jury returned to the courtroom, hopelessly deadlocked. Goodwin's fight would once again have to wait until another day.
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