A federal jury Thursday awarded $540,000 to former major league baseball player Joe Morgan after determining that the Hall of Fame member was illegally detained and roughed up by a Los Angeles police officer who had mistaken Morgan for a drug courier.
The jurors deliberated for only 2 1/2 hours before siding with Morgan in his lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles and Los Angeles Police Department narcotics Detective Clayton Searle, who was accused of violating Morgan's civil rights during their 1988 confrontation at Los Angeles International Airport.
Morgan had testified that he was en route to a celebrity golf tournament in Tucson when he found himself face-to-face with Searle, who was searching the airport for the partner of a suspected drug trafficker.
Morgan said that despite his efforts to identify himself, the narcotics officer suddenly grabbed him around the neck, hurled him to the floor, handcuffed him before a crowd of onlookers and dragged him to a small room for questioning.
Searle testified that he approached Morgan because the former player acted suspiciously and that he threw him to the floor only after Morgan became belligerent.
Morgan was later released. He filed a lawsuit against Searle accusing him of battery, inflicting emotional distress and violating his constitutional rights.
When the jury returned its verdict, Morgan, 47, was jubilant.
"I didn't do it for the money," Morgan said as he left the Los Angeles courtroom. "I believe in law and order, but it has to be (applied to) the police as well as everyone else."
Morgan, who retired in 1984 after 22 years as a major league player, is now a businessman and television baseball commentator. The jury awarded $90,000 in general damages and $450,000 in punitive damages.
It was the second trial for Morgan involving his lawsuit. An earlier trial ended in a verdict for the defendants, but U.S. District Judge Marianne R. Pfaelzer ordered a new trial after ruling that she failed to instruct the jury that Morgan had been illegally detained.
After the second trial was completed Thursday, some jurors said they believe Morgan was singled out because he is black and that he was victimized by Searle.
"We wanted to send a message to City Hall that police cannot act uncontrollably," said juror Gene Dempsey, 38, of Buena Park.
Searle, a 20-year police veteran, was absent from the courtroom when the jury returned with its verdict and could not be reached for comment. Assistant City Atty. Honey A. Lewis, who represented Searle, declined to comment as she left the courtroom. But Morgan's attorneys said they expect the verdict to be appealed.
During the three-day trial, Searle, 42, vehemently defended his actions and said he grabbed Morgan and forced him to the floor only after Morgan became combative, screamed at the officer and took a swing at him.
An agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration who was working with Searle supported the officer's account.
However, a passenger waiting to board the same plane as Morgan testified that he never saw Morgan yell at the police detective. The witness also said that when he tried to intervene and explain to Searle who Morgan was, the officer warned him not to interfere.
As he left the courthouse to fly back to his Oakland-area home, Morgan said he was relieved his legal ordeal was over. "This is one of the toughest things I've ever had to do, but what he did to me may have happened to other people as well," he said.