Trainee Officer Recovers $2.5 Million For False Arrest

San Francisco police officer trainee Bret Cornell, while off duty and in street clothes, went for a run one morning in Golden Gate Park, stopping for a brief rest on a knoll called Hippie Hill. Two uniformed patrol officers in the area spotted him, thought he looked “worried,” and grew suspicious because the bushes on Hippie Hill are known for illicit drug activity. As the patrolmen began to approach Cornell, but before they reached him or said anything to him, he resumed his run. The officers gave chase, joined in pursuit by two other officers who responded to a call for backup. One of the officers, with his gun drawn, eventually caught up to Cornell on a trail in some nearby woods.

Cornell claimed he had no idea he was being chased or that the officers wished to speak with him. On the trail, he said he heard a shout from behind, “I will shoot you,” and looked over his shoulder to see a dark figure pointing a gun at him. He darted away, ultimately finding what he thought was refuge with a police officer awaiting his arrival some distance away at the top of a stairway in AIDS Memorial Grove. But to his surprise when he arrived there, that officer ordered him to the ground. He was arrested at gunpoint and searched, taken in handcuffs to a stationhouse for interrogation and eventually to a hospital for a drug test, which was negative.

In the meantime, a team of officers went back to Golden Gate Park, spoke to people who had seen Cornell that morning and conducted a search of the areas where he was known to have been and of his parked truck. No evidence of involvement with drugs turned up, and after nearly six hours in custody, Cornell was released. As he was leaving the stationhouse, he was given a criminal citation for evading arrest in violation of California Penal Code Section 148. Other than cursory questioning by the officers who issued the citation, no one in a position of higher authority ever interviewed him or asked for his side of the story. Cornell was never prosecuted, but he lost his job as a result of the arrest and citation.

Cornell sued the four arresting officers, the Chief of Police, and the City and County of San Francisco. A jury ruled in Cornell’s favor, awarding him total damages of $575,231. Following trial, the Court added $2,027,612.75 in attorney’s fees and costs.

The key question for the California Court of Appeals was whether there was reasonable suspicion to detain and hence probable cause to arrest Cornell. The Court found that there was not, and that the jury’s verdict should be upheld. The Court observed that “this incident took place in broad daylight in one of the most heavily used public recreation areas in San Francisco. The jury found that when the chase commenced, Officers Brandt and Bodisco knew little more than that they had seen Cornell at a location where drug crimes often took place, but with nothing connecting him to any criminal activity. The man had nothing in his hands, made no furtive movements, and was speaking to no one. Nothing about the way he was dressed indicated he might be hiding something under his clothing, and Officers Brandt and Bodisco gave him no directions that he disobeyed.

“The officers did not claim they recognized Cornell as someone with previous involvement in criminal activity. They had no tip that a drug transaction was about to take place in which he fit the description of someone likely to be involved. And they saw no activity on Hippie Hill, by anyone, indicating that drug activity was currently taking place or about to take place there.

“What is important here is whether the circumstances known to the officers, in totality, connected Cornell to suspected criminal activity, not whether, as a standalone matter, they perceived him to be fleei ng from them when he began to run. The jury made no finding, and there was no evidence, that Cornell was carrying something Officers Brandt and Bodisco thought could be contraband and discarded it as he ran. Nor was there any finding that Cornell was desperate, panicked or in headlong flight. Because Officers Brandt and Bodisco did not have reasonable suspicion to detain in the first place, the trial court properly concluded that none of the officers acted in the lawful course of his duties at later points in time.”

Cornell v. City and County of San Francisco, 2017 WL 5618672 (Cal. App. 2017).