Newport Beach : Damage Award Voided in Blood-Test Case

Newport Beach police acted reasonably in allegedly grabbing a drunk-driving suspect and holding him so a nurse could draw his blood, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday in overturning a $15,500 damage award.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco reversed a federal court jury's decision that the officers had violated the constitutional rights of Timothy Hammer during a blood test after his arrest in June, 1985.

"The 'force' used . . . was nothing more than the application of physical restraint required to conduct the blood extraction in a safe and efficient manner," Judge Cynthia Holcomb Hall held in the 3-0 ruling.

Hammer's lawyer, Stephen Yagman, said the court had usurped the jury's role and "decided to retry the case."

Hammer was stopped for speeding by Officer Armando Zatarain and failed roadside sobriety tests, the court said. Hammer refused to take a blood, breath or urine test to determine his blood-alcohol level. At a Newport Beach hospital, Hammer said Zatarain grabbed him and handcuffed him to a chair while a nurse swabbed his arm. When he flinched from the needle, he said that both he and the officer fell to the floor. He added that Zatarain held him down in the chair while the blood was taken. Hammer later pleaded no contest to drunk driving.

The officer denied touching Hammer. But a jury found that Hammer's rights had been violated and awarded $4,000 in compensation, $1,500 in punitive damages against Zatarain, and $10,000 in punitive damages against Charles Gross, who was Newport Beach police chief at the time of the incident.

The appeals court ruled that the judge should have thrown the damages out because Zatarain did not use unreasonable force.

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