A federal appeals court has ruled the police departments of Easton, Monroe, Trumbull, Darien and Wilton cannot use a shield of immunity to protect them from millions of dollars in civil rights claims arising from a 2008 tactical-team raid that killed a Norwalk man and injured an Easton homeowner.
In a 51-page decision, 10 months after it heard arguments in the case, the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals cleared the way for a jury to decide whether the police departments violated Ronald Terebesi's constitutional rights when a heavily armed team smashed down his door, tossed stun grenades into his home and fatally shot his house guest, 33-year-old Gonzalo Guizan, as the two men were watching TV.
During the raid, Guizan was shot half a dozen times by Monroe Officer Michael Sweeney.
The police team's action was based on a claim by an exotic dancer that she saw a small amount of cocaine and some smoking pipes in Terebesi's home.
Last February, the towns agreed to pay $3.5 million to Guizan's family to settle their lawsuit. Terebesi states in his lawsuit he was injured when police pinned him to the floor and hit him in the head with a gun butt. He claims he is suffering from post-traumatic stress as a result from the raid and his civil rights were violated.
"It was the most blatant overuse of police power I've ever seen," said Terebesi's lawyer, Gary Mastronardi, a former FBI agent. "This is a very important decision and will be cited in cases all over the U.S."
The appeals court did uphold former Easton Police Chief John Solomon's right to claim immunity for calling in the team -- but not for what came afterward, referring in the first line of the decision to the "botched" raid.
The court ruled that "the defendants point to no evidence in the record suggesting that Terebesi would actually use force against the police."
Arthur Laske III, who represents Trumbull police officers involved in the raid, said he was "pleased that the 2nd Circuit overturned the lower court decision and extended qualified immunity regarding the decision to deploy the (Southwest Regional Emergency Response Team).
"As for the remainder of the court's decision, I will consult with my clients regarding our options," Laske said.
"Retired Chief Solomon is very pleased that the 2nd Circuit determined he is entitled to qualified immunity for the decision to call out the emergency response team on that day in 2008," said his lawyer, Catherine S. Nietzel. "During the course of this lawsuit, there has been considerable focus and attention paid to the background of that decision. Chief Solomon always maintained that his motivation was to prevent violence by calling in the tactical experts, and to protect the residents of Easton and the officers involved. He is gratified not to face further challenge on that issue."
Mastronardi said if the towns don't ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, they will be given a trial date.
"We have overcome all their attempts to throw the case out; now it's time for the police to face the music and for a jury to decide whether Terebesi is entitled to money damages," he said.
On May 18, 2008, heavily armed members of the team, staffed by officers from the five towns, at Solomon's request raided Terebesi's home at 91 Dogwood Drive in Easton.
Guizan had been watching television in the home with Terebesi when the 21-member team, armed with automatic weapons, broke down the door and threw flash grenades inside. No guns were found in the home, and police recovered only a small quantity of drugs.
According to his pretrial testimony, Solomon decided to call in the team after an exotic dancer, who had earlier been at the home. told officers she saw Terebesi and Guizan take "something" out of a small tin, place it in two small glass smoking pipes and smoke it.
She never told officers there were weapons in the home.
The raid came days after a neighborhood group, including the former first selectman who hired Solomon, had complained to Solomon about Terebesi.
Raid members later testified they were told Terebesi had guns and was considered dangerous.
email@example.com; 203-330-6308; http://twitter.com/dantepfer