Use of Force trial

Lake County Sgt. Michael Carlson demonstrates for the jury handcuffing methods on defense attorney Mitch Young during an excessive use of force trial on Sept. 5.

POLSON — A jury found in favor of Lake County law enforcement on Friday and ruled against any award for plaintiff Larry Martinez, 71, who had alleged excessive use of force during his 2016 arrest.

Jurors, six men and six women of varying ages, went into deliberations shortly after 1 p.m. to determine whether Martinez’s constitutional rights had been violated and whether Sgt. Michael Carlson and then-detention officer Cody Strubel acted with “reckless disregard” in handling his arrest that day. 

After a little more than three hours of deliberations, the verdict came through: Lake County law enforcement had not "recklessly disregarded" Martinez's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, and Martinez was awarded nothing.

Martinez's August 2017 lawsuit alleged Carlson’s handcuffs caused nerve damage to his wrists requiring surgery, and that Strubel had body-slammed him in the detention center lobby for not listening to directions. Martinez testified this week he has been completely hearing impaired since birth.

The arrest in question stems from July 31, 2016, when Martinez, allegedly drunk, drove his pickup off the road and became stuck in the ditch. 

Martinez’s attorneys had spent four days laying the framework to show he had suffered since the injuries sustained during the arrest. He’s now suffering chronic pain and is without the ability to play golf or go fishing and hiking — essentially each of the reasons the couple retired in Polson from Colorado. But beyond leisure activities, it’s the anxiety and stress that’s now a part of Martinez’s life, said plaintiffs' attorney Jason Williams.

During closing arguments, Williams injected his own experience from the night earlier into his closing arguments in order to punctuate Martinez’s experience.

“Last night, early in the morning, I couldn’t go to sleep,” he said. “What did I do? I turned on the radio, turned on music so I could drown out my thoughts, make them quiet. Mr. Martinez doesn’t have that ability. Mr. Martinez is hearing impaired. No way to shut out the thoughts, the fear, the anxiety, the flashbacks.”

But defense counsel argued the tangible injuries could be tracked through medical records as far back as 1996 when a disastrous motorcycle crash left Martinez in a “halo” head brace and long-lasting pain conditions. In the 20 years between that crash and his Lake County arrest, Martinez had been in other car crashes, bar fights and took a bad spill on the ice. Two experts who testified for the defense on Thursday, a neurologist and a forensic psychiatrist, considered his conditions to be pre-existing based on their in-person reviews with Martinez.

Lead defense counsel Maureen Lennon, for her closing arguments, produced a blown-up poster board with Martinez’s booking photograph, in which he has his head tilted back with a big grin. The picture was taken several hours after Martinez’s arrest. 

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“This is the face of a man who a couple of hours before this picture was taken, has told you that he lost virtually everything,” Lennon opened. “He was so grievously and seriously injured in the incident with law enforcement that he lost his ability to work, mow his lawn, cook, fish, ride his motorcycle.”

Lennon contended that Martinez wasn’t being punitively manhandled around the detention facility but instead was “belligerent, uncooperative and drunk.” After the tumble in the detention center, Martinez was taken to the hospital where a blood sample showed his blood-alcohol content at .288, more than three times the legal limit.

“Cody Strubel threw him down in front of the watchful eye of a surveillance camera, a medic crew and highway patrol officers? I don't think so,” Lennon said.

The jury sent three questions to the judge within two hours of deliberations: Could they find no negligence on the county’s part and still award Martinez some damages? No, was the answer. So they wanted to watch the video again, and in the end, ruled in favor of law enforcement.

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