Former Mesa Officer Wins False-Arrest Lawsuit but No Money

Retired Mesa police union president Javier Fabian Cota won a partial victory this week in his civil-rights lawsuit against San Diego police, but so far no monetary award or reimbursement of his many expenses.

The flap began about 3 a.m. on June 4, 2011, while Cota was in downtown San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter partying with his nephew. Two police officers accused Cota of public drunkenness, claiming he interfered with an investigation of a would-be drunk driver and cursed at them from a pedicab. He was so drunk, the officers said, he passed out three times in the back of the squad car before being taken to a detox facility and held for four hours.

Cota told New Times in 2012 he'd had five drinks that night, but hadn't been drunk. In an interview and later in his lawsuit, Cota said he felt the officers were sexually harassing two women he and his nephew had just met. He admits he called the officers "dipshits" as he inquired why they were "hassling" the women, but insists he never yelled. He asserts that the officers retaliated against him by arresting him, cuffed him too tightly, threatening to file bogus charges against him if he didn't spend four hours in the drunk tank, and changing their report to make the arrest look legit.

He put in a $2.75 million claim against the city of San Diego and the officers, then followed up with the federal lawsuit alleging false arrest and other rights violations.

A veteran sergeant who had 22 years on the force in Mesa, Cota had been the subject of controversy in his department previously over his role as president of the Mesa Police Association. He was on a one-year disciplinary probation at the time of his arrest, following an investigation and subsequent punishment by former Chief John Meza for his apparent misuse of a list of police officers' emails.

After the arrest, Cota was demoted to patrol officer and had his salary reduced by $40,000 a year. That, in turn, reduced the pension check he now receives.

On Tuesday, the eight-member federal jury in California decided that Cota had been falsely arrested. Under California law, a person can be arrested for public drunkenness only if they are unable to care for their own safety or that of others. The jury believed Cota's version of his level of alleged inebriation, not the San Diego officers. Cota had tied his case to a pattern of ongoing police misconduct at the San Diego Police Department at the time. In December of 2013, the city was ordered to pay $450,000 to a couple who were Tased, pepper-sprayed and detained by two officers, including one of the officers in Cota's case, Ariel Savage.

However, the jury decided that the officers hadn't arrested Cota in retaliation for confronting them, that the arrest had constituted excessive force or caused him harm. No damages were awarded.

"We are pleased that the jury sends Mr. Cota back to Arizona without one penny from San Diego taxpayers," said Gerry Braun, spokesman for San Diego Office of the City Attorney.

Braun may or may not be speaking too hastily. Cota's California lawyer, Mary Frances Prevost, tells New Times the verdict was "improper" and that under the law it should have entailed at least a nominal monetary award. She plans on filing a motion for a new trial just on the question of damages, she says.

"More work still needs to be done," Cota acknowledges, though he says he does feel like he's achieved victory.

"They whole point is that they were wrong."

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"We proved it was an unlawful arrest," he says. The officers admitted the encounter with Cota lasted only three minutes before they took him into custody, he says, not the nearly 10-minute tirade that they'd previously accused him of.

"They whole point is that they were wrong," he says. "I'm grateful the jury saw through it."

Without the monetary award, though, Cota has lost in another sense.

With the help of Prevost, he investigated the officers' story by combing through paperwork and flying to California numerous times for interviews and depositions. He's spent "thousands and thousands" on the case, he says.

He'd like to stay in law enforcement and has applied to work at other departments, he says. But each time, he's been rejected. He feels it's because of his easily-Googlable notoriety related to his arrest and lawsuit.

"My career in law enforcement has been taken away, ironically, by officers behaving like thugs," he laments.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern