On Friday, August 25, 2023, HSRD Partners Brian Olney, Dan Stormer, and Associate Rebecca Brown obtained a trial victory against the City of Los Angeles challenging its use of violent and extreme tactics in response to a car with mismatched license plates. The Los Angeles Police Department has a policy of treating all cars with mismatched license plates as suspected stolen vehicles assumed to be “armed and dangerous.” In this case, that meant sending more than 20 officers and a police helicopter to point guns at Karl Augustus, force him to lie face down and spread-eagle in the street, and handcuff him—all because a DMV error caused his license plates to appear registered to another car that Mr. Augustus had previously owned. The jury heard evidence demonstrating that LAPD knows these tactics are completely unnecessary, including that 75% of vehicles stopped on suspicion of being stolen are not actually stolen, that no item that can even be used as a weapon is found in 99% of these stops, and that no LAPD officer has ever been injured during one of these stops. All of these facts are based on LAPD’s own records, yet LAPD continues to direct its officers to use these violent tactics against hundreds of innocent Angelenos every year.
On June 11, 2021, LAPD officers used these violent tactics against Karl Augustus, a military veteran whom the Army diagnosed with PTSD following his two combat tours during the Iraq war. After the Army forced him to retire due to his PTSD diagnosis, Mr. Augustus worked for a decade to put his life back together and gain control over his PTSD symptoms. All that work was undone in an instant by the LAPD when the sight of guns and the sound of the LAPD helicopter triggered a wartime flashback of loading dying soldiers onto Blackhawk helicopters in Iraq. Mr. Augustus and his wife gave tearful testimony at trial about the lasting impact the LAPD’s tactics have had on Mr. Augustus, who remains afraid to drive and fearful of crowds nearly two years later. When Mr. Augustus recently took his wife and two-year-old daughter to the Aquarium, he suffered a panic attack within half an hour and had to leave.
After the first trial in early August ended in a deadlocked jury and mistrial, HSRD retried the case just two weeks later and obtained a unanimous verdict for Mr. Augustus and an award of $150,000 in emotional distress damages—the largest award to date in this type of case.
Mr. Olney will head back to trial alongside partner Morgan Ricketts in early October to challenge the tactics used during a similar traffic stop by another police department.