DELHI – Two and a half hours after 57 potential jurors were summoned to the second-floor courtroom of the Delaware County Courthouse, five men and three women were sworn in as jurors to hear police brutality allegations against the Walton Police Department and three of its officers – two now employed elsewhere – resulting from a Feb. 1, 2013 arrest in front of Danny’s Restaurant on Gardiner Place in the village.
Pre-trial negotiations have so far been unsuccessful following William J. Picinich’s lawsuit alleging excessive and unnecessary use of police force by Walton police officers Chris Erwin, John Cornwell (who left the department to take a position with the Tioga County Sheriff’s Office) and Dan St. Jacques, in an arrest which Picinich says he suffered severe permanent physical injuries. For those injuries, Picinich is seeking both punitive and compensatory damages, asserting unnecessary and malicious conduct by the officers.
According to court documents and previous coverage of court proceedings, Picinich was placed under arrest by former Walton Police Officer John Cornwell, now employed by another police agency, on Feb. 1, 2013, and charged with obstructing governmental administration, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct, following Picinich’s wife Tina’s traffic stop for a “loud muffler” outside of the Walton eatery. She was driving there, she said in court documents, to pick up her husband.
As she parked her vehicle outside the restaurant, court documents and attorney statements to the prospective jury revealed, that not one, but three police cruisers with emergency lights flashing – on the light bar and in the grill – surrounded Tina Picinich as she parked her vehicle outside the eatery.
The flashing lights, Picinich’s attorney Terry Hoffman said, drew the attention of many people. Some of those people will be called to testify as witnesses.
Those witnesses alerted William Picinich – Bill to those who know him – that his wife was being detained by police outside the restaurant. Court documents reveal that Picinich exited the eatery and approached the three law enforcement officers, demanding to know what was going on.
A supporting deposition, sworn to by former Walton Police Officer John Cornwell, states that Picinich was told to remove himself from the scene by former Walton Police Officer Chris Erwin, who is currently employed by the Delaware County Sheriff’s Office.
This is where police testimony and Picinich’s testimony diverge. Cornwell swears in his supporting depositing that Picinich became belligerent, swearing at them. Picinich makes no mention of swearing in his version of the events from justice court proceedings, and instead stated that he turned around and started walking back into the eatery when he was forcibly “taken to the ground” and placed under arrest. The way in which he was aggressively handled, Picinich said, resulted in a re-tear of a previous right shoulder, or rotator cuff, injury.
That is the issue to be tried by a six-person Delaware County Supreme Court jury – whether excessive force was used in the arrest.
Criminal Charges Dismissed
Picinich was found not-guilty of the criminal charges lodged against him stemming from his wife’s traffic stop, following a trial in Walton Justice Court on October 29 and 30, 2014. In Supreme Court, following the village of Walton’s request to have the excessive use of force case thrown out, Judge John F. Lambert found that the village of Walton “may be held liable for injuries where a police officer uses excessive force in an arrest; and a police officer may be held liable for assault and battery even when performing an official duty if excessive force was used and the force used was not reasonable.”
In order to recover damages, Picinich must convince the jury that there was physical contact and that the contact was ‘offensive.’”
In a ruling prior to trial, the court determined that “The plaintiff’s injury is severe, while the charged crimes are relatively minor.”
He Said, He Said, He Said
In choosing a jury, Lambert began by telling assembled jurors that there was an “allegation of excessive use of force by police officers” that resulted in “alleged injuries to the plaintiff.”
Picinich’s lawyer quizzed the first panel of 14 jurors by asking them questions: Are you familiar with Danny’s Restaurant? Have you ever worked for an insurance company or a municipality – a taxpayer funded entity?; Are you intimidated by the Defendants – two of which are in uniform and carrying guns, though they have the right to wear uniforms and carry guns?; Should police officers be believed simply because they are police officers?; Have you ever suffered an injury that has been disabling?; Would you weigh the testimony of a police officer like anyone else?; Do you agree that police officers are tasked with de-escalating a situation and can sometimes exaggerate the truth or invent facts?
Respondents’ counsel, Michael Cook, of Ulster County, in turn told jurors that there is a different standard of proof in civil cases than in criminal cases. In civil cases, Cook said, like this one, jurors merely need to find “a preponderance of evidence,” which, he said, means “it’s more likely than not.”
He told the jurors who had not yet heard about the criminal charges, that they could not consider the dismissal of the criminal charges during the trial.
“Mr. Picinich is going to allege that he has a shoulder injury,” Cook told the jurors. “My clients dispute everything he says.”
Cook then questioned the panel whether they had ever experienced any negative interaction with authority figures, police officers or agencies.
One woman who stated she felt the media “villainizes” police was dismissed as a potential juror, as was a former Suffolk County Corrections Officer who stated that sometimes situations escalate quickly and immediate action needs to be taken by officers.
Judge Cautions Jurors
Upon their selection, Lambert cautioned jurors not to discuss the trial with anyone, until directed to do so by the court. He further directed that jurors should not read or listen to any newspaper or media accounts of the trial, stating that any reports were merely the view of one person who has their own interpretation of events.
Opening statements and witness testimony are scheduled to begin in the case of William J. Picinich against the Village of Walton, the Village of Walton Police Department, Village of Walton Police Officers Chris Erwin, John Cornwell and Dan St. Jacques, as police officers and individually, on Tuesday, July 10 at 9 a.m.
Court is open to the public.
Lillian Browne, July 7, 2018, the-reporter.net, “Walton Police Brutality Trial Begins”, http://www.the-reporter.net/news/2018-07-04/Front_Page/Walton_Police_Brutality_Trial_Begins.html