A jury last week ruled unanimously in favor of the city, police department and high school district in a wrongful arrest lawsuit filed by a former Los Altos High School student.
Although Cesar Enciso claimed he was merely sick when a police officer arrested him on campus five years ago on suspicion of marijuana use, the jury Sept. 19 found he should not receive damages for what transpired.
According to documents filed with the Santa Clara County Superior Court, Enciso – a 15-year-old sophomore at the high school in 2006 – took a drug test administered by county officers after Los Altos Police Detective Susan Anderson arrested him. The test was negative, court papers show.
But Enciso exhibited many symptoms of being under the influence, according to Anderson’s deposition, including watery and bloodshot eyes. His “mouth was dry and his tongue coated with a white-yellowish substance, indicative of marijuana,” she said.
The 12-member jury agreed with the defense that the actions of Anderson and school officials were reasonable and that Enciso should not be compensated. In addition to wrongful arrest, his suit alleged invasion of privacy, battery and emotional distress.
Timothy Schmal, who defended the city of Los Altos and the Los Altos Police Department in the case, said the drug test detects a limited number of substances.
“Even to this day, I believe he was under the influence of something,” Schmal said, adding that the three-week trial amounted to a “waste of taxpayer money.”
Enciso’s attorney, Robert David Baker, did not return several calls requesting comment.
On Feb. 10, 2006, according to court documents, Enciso stayed behind after his last class of the day and put his head down in his arms on his desk. His English teacher, Lisa Bonanno, asked him what was wrong, and another student suggested he was under the influence. (Enciso later filed a small-claims suit against the former student, which he also lost.)
Despite Enciso’s claims that he was tired and ill, Bonanno alerted high school administrators, who summoned Enciso to the office and called the police. Anderson, School Resource Officer at the time, responded.
Baker’s opposition to the city and high school’s motion for summary judgment alleges that Bonanno knew Enciso had been feeling ill several days prior to the incident and had missed school. Per school policy, Enciso, who, according to court documents, had no history of disciplinary action, was suspended from school for five days.
Los Altos Mayor Ron Packard, who served on the city council during the incident, called the lawsuit “a dog case.”
“When I heard Anderson (testify), it became clear to me that the police and school acted very reasonably,” Packard told the Town Crier. “If the city did wrong, I don’t believe in whitewashing that. It would need to be exposed so they can clean up their act.”
The parties convened for a settlement conference in May, but city officials, per policy, declined to settle. Packard said in an interview that settling could have a chilling effect on the city’s police officers and school administrators, because they might second-guess their judgment in subsequent situations.
“They took reasonable steps and tried to follow the rules,” Packard said. “To be sued afterwards when they did the right things … we do not want the school or police to be chilled in trying to protect our children from drug abuses.”
Los Altos Police Chief Tuck Younis referred questions to the mayor, but speaking in general terms, he said police officers “make split-second decisions every day.”
“All of the other ramifications, like some type of litigation or lawsuit, are things that are after the fact,” said Younis, who became police chief after the incident. “That’s the way we have to look at the way we do business.”