Oakland Agrees to Pay over $830,000 in Plaintiffs' Attorney's Fees

It seems like a scene from any given episode of Cops. Two Oakland police officers pull over a car. After questioning the driver, he is ordered out of the car, along with the passenger. Then, after the two men are ordered out of the car, they are  handcuffed and searched. Only in this case, in the course of being searched, the officer unbuckles the driver's pants, causing them to fall the the floor, and further pulls down his boxers half way, so that he could more diligently search for drugs. Only, there are no drugs. And, oh yeah, there was no lawful reason for pulling the car over in the first place.

Thus, we have your standard case of the Fruit of The Poisonous Tree Doctrine, which states that any evidence discovered after an unlawful search or seizure is inadmissible as evidence at trial. Only that's not the issue here.

The problem here is more straightforward: civil rights.

Believe it or not, you have the right not to be unlawfully searched, and furthermore, not to be "pantsed" in front of a crowd of onlookers, when you have done nothing wrong (and the officers have no lawful reason to think that you have.)

This is what a district court judge found after a bench trial (meaning there was no jury). She ordered the plaintiffs to be awarded $205,000 in compensatory damages. Additionally, because the plaintiffs were the prevailing parties in a civil rights suit, their attorneys were awarded their fees, which in this case totaled $832,639.

Although the fees initially seem high, this incident happened in 2005, almost SEVEN years ago, and there were two attorneys on the case. If you simply take the award and divide it in 6, assuming the case was initially pursued in 2006, and then divide it by the number of attorneys, that means each attorney is getting at the most $70,000 a year (assuming there were no other attorneys or other people working on the case, out of pocket costs, etc.), to work on a case that probably no one else would take, hence the SEVEN year period in which it took to finally be resolved.

The Oakland City Council voted to pay the fees last week, since the plaintiffs were the prevailing parties. As a general matter, when there is an attorney's fee statute stating that the losing party will pay the prevailing party's legal fees, if the "losing party" doesn't pay of their own fruition, the prevailing party can file a motion to have the court enforce the requirement. Thus, Oakland is saving itself the trouble of incurring further legal expenses.

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