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Jury awards $320,000 in Buffalo police civil rights case

Justin Levy admits he was more than a little nervous at the prospect of an all-white jury deciding his fate.

After all, he was a young African-American man suing over his arrest by a white police officer in Buffalo.

Even more important, perhaps, Levy wondered if the recent shootings in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas would sway the six people hearing his case.

He got the answer he hoped for Wednesday.

The jury, after more than a day of deliberations, awarded $320,000 to Levy and found in his favor on all three of the allegations at the core of his civil suit against the city.

“I’m overwhelmed,” Levy, now 28, said afterward.

From Day One of the trial, Levy’s lawyers made it clear this was not a case about physical injuries caused by a false arrest and unlawful imprisonment.

No, they said, this was a case about a different kind of injury – the freedom and liberty their client lost on that day in January 2009.

“They took a lot away from me,” Levy said of the police.

At the heart of the case was the allegation that Buffalo Police Officer Raymond Harrington Levy falsely arrested him and that he subsequently was jailed, strip searched, photographed, fingerprinted and hauled into court in leg irons.

The charges were later dismissed.

Steven M. Cohen, one of Levy’s lawyers, acknowledged from the start of the trial that Levy suffered no physical injuries.

“We’re here for a much larger purpose,” Cohen told the jury in his opening statement.

Over and over again, he stressed his client’s innocence, reminding the jury that Levy was no street thug. He told them of his client’s devotion to Christianity, his close ties to his family and his long work record as a carpenter and construction supervisor.

But on the night of Levy’s arrest, Cohen said, the only thing that mattered was the color of his skin.

In the end, the jury agreed that Levy was falsely arrested, unlawfully imprisoned and maliciously prosecuted. The jurors also decided his civil rights were violated and that he suffered damages as a result.

“We are pleased the jury spoke with a single, clear voice – that civil rights have value,” Cohen said after the verdict was announced.

Lawyers for the city declined to comment on the verdict or the possibility of an appeal but, during the trial, tried repeatedly to make the case that Buffalo Police had reasonable cause to arrest Levy.

Police officers who responded were in the midst of a physical altercation with Levy’s aunt when Levy showed up at her Millicent Avenue home and at one point started “ranting and raving,” according to J. Christine Chiriboga, a lawyer for the city.

Chiriboga described Harrington’s arrest as “routine” and suggested he had reasons to believe Levy was interfering with the police.

“You will hear testimony that after the arrest was effected, Mr. Levy was treated cordially, that admonitions were made to be careful and that he was given advice about how to avoid the discomfort from the cuffs,” she told the jury.

The jury disagreed.

When the trial began last week, the shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge had just happened and Levy’s lawyers acknowledged Wednesday that there was concern at that point about its impact on the jury.

The news of Philando Castile’s death in suburban St. Paul, also at the hands of police, came a day later, and that was quickly followed by the murder of five Dallas police officers on Thursday. The gunman, Micah Johnson, an African-American and former U.S. Army reservist, was later killed by police.

“With everything going on, it was almost a perfect storm for this case to be heard,” William A. Lorenz Jr., one of Levy’s lawyers, said Wednesday.

After the Dallas shootings, U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. Vilardo, the judge overseeing Levy’s case, surveyed the jury. Without mentioning the three incidents, he asked them if they had seen the news and if they could still remain impartial.

To a person, they nodded yes. Three days later, they returned with a verdict

A spokesman for the city, citing the ongoing nature of the lawsuit, declined comment Wednesday.

email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com