Video shows JPSO deputies ram car into fleeing suspect; lawsuit alleges excessive force

This article was originally published by The Advocate on September 27, 2018. See full article online.

By Ramon Antonio Vargas- The Advocate

A man who says he was beaten by Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office narcotics agents last year has filed a lawsuit demanding damages from members of the agency, including two deputies involved in the investigation into a recent police killing.

Joseph Little alleged in a lawsuit filed Wednesday that Sheriff’s Office deputies hit him with their car during a sting operation in June of 2017. The deputies then began kicking him while he was on the ground, he said.

Crime camera footage obtained by The Advocate appears to show Little being rammed by an unmarked Sheriff’s Office vehicle. Multiple deputies then stood over him, and then at least one appears to kick or stomp him while he is on the ground.

Little’s attorney, Gary Bizal, filed the lawsuit in New Orleans’ federal courthouse just ahead of the lapse of a one-year statute of limitations in the case.

Defendants include agents Gary Bordelon and William Whittington, both of whom were involved in another recent investigation into actions by deputies. Bordelon is one of four deputies temporarily taken out of the field following the unrelated, in-custody death of Keeven Robinson in May. Whittington prepared a warrant to search Robinson’s home in New Orleans without mentioning he had been killed, court records in that case show.

The lawsuit brought by Little, now 32, marks the latest instance in which a unit that is the pride of the Sheriff’s Office is accused of using unnecessary force. At least one other federal suit filed in April accused other Sheriff’s Office narcotics deputies of unjustifiably shooting a man during a drug sting targeting the plaintiff’s friend, and Little mentions other legal disputes in which the deputies named in his case faced allegations of brutality.

Sheriff Joe Lopinto has repeatedly defended the work of his narcotics division, crediting them as one of the reasons for the all-time lows in crime that Jefferson Parish has registered in recent years.

Attorney Danny Martiny, who represents the Sheriff’s Office in civil lawsuits, said in an email seeking comment Thursday that the agency prefers to do its “talking in court.”

“I would suggest that you check the criminal records of (Jefferson Parish’s 24th Judicial District Court), which seem to contradict Mr. Little’s version of events,” Martiny said.

According to court documents, Little drew scrutiny from the Sheriff’s Office when Whittington received a tip from an informant that Little was dealing cocaine and heroin throughout Jefferson Parish and the city of New Orleans. Whittington later started following Little — who had prior drug-related convictions – and watched as he carried out what were allegedly hand-to-hand narcotics deals.

Eventually, Whittington and his colleagues tracked Little to an apartment in the 1000 block of Lake Avenue in Metairie. As Little left the apartment, he noticed three agents in a maroon pickup truck. He started running away and tossed something over his right shoulder when the plainclothes agents – in ballistics vests – got out of their truck and started chasing him in an attempt to make an arrest.

Little had gone several steps when a vehicle going in the opposite direction plowed into him, knocking him down in plain view of a street surveillance camera. At least two agents appeared to kick him while he was down, with one doing so multiple times before retreating to recover the object Little had tossed.

Deputies said it was a struggle to handcuff Little. They said he had more than $940 in cash on him, and the bag he discarded contained 42 rocks of cocaine.

A search of the apartment then revealed marijuana, prescription painkillers and weight scales commonly used by people who sell drugs illicitly, the Sheriff’s Office said. Deputies jailed Little on a raft of felony drug counts and an allegation of resisting arrest after he received treatment from paramedics.

But after evaluating the case, Jefferson Parish prosecutors charged Little only on the drug counts, to which he eventually pleaded guilty in exchange for a five-year prison sentence.

Little’s federal lawsuit argues that he did not resist any deputies’ commands after one of them, Scott Zemlik, used his car to hit him. Nonetheless, Little alleges, at least some of the deputies kicked him and beat him enough that he required medical attention.

The rest did nothing to stop the beating, and they all agreed they would claim Little had resisted even as he was battered, Little and Bizal contend. Video showing the incident shows Little eventually being brought to his feet after his handcuffing.

The lawsuit singles out Zemlik, Bordelon, Whittington, Dominick Sciortino, Leon James, Thorin Guidry, Randall Kuhn and Richard Berger as defendants accused of violating Little’s civil rights.

Lopinto is also named, with Little and Bizal arguing that the sheriff had been indifferent to prior allegations of excessive force against Zemlik, Bordelon and Whittington.

A 2013 federal lawsuit accused Zemlik, then working for Gretna police, of unjustifiably using his car to strike a fleeing marijuana possession suspect and badly beating him. It does not appear that the lawsuit has been resolved.

A 2015 federal lawsuit accused Whittington and two colleagues of pulling a man out of his car during a traffic stop and beating him without justification. The Sheriff’s Office eventually triumphed in that case.

A federal lawsuit the following year accused Whittington and Bordelon of using excessive force to arrest a man whose hand was injured during his arrest. It resulted in an undisclosed settlement.

Two pending federal lawsuits from this year accuse Bordelon of excessive force while arresting a man and a woman in separate cases.

Bizal also represented plaintiffs on some of those other recent lawsuits.

A pickup truck similar to the one seen in the video of Little’s arrest also appeared on footage depicting portions of the car and foot chase that resulted in the May 10 death of Robinson. He was also the target of a drug sting.

Robinson fought with deputies as they handcuffed him in the back yard of a home in the Shrewsbury neighborhood off Jefferson Highway. Officials have said he died after someone either squeezed, grabbed or leaned on his neck during that struggle.

In addition to Bordelon, the Sheriff’s office also placed Jason Spadoni, Justin Brister and David Lowe on desk duty while an investigation was conducted into whether the deputies used excessive force in their encounter with Robinson.

The Sheriff’s Office has not said whether that investigation has been completed. But Capt. Jason Rivarde said Bordelon, Spadoni, Brister and Lowe all remained on desk duty.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office on Thursday said they were still reviewing the circumstances of Robinson’s death.

Joseph Giacolone, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, has previously questioned the decision by Whittington to omit mention of Robinson’s death when he successfully applied for a warrant to search the slain man’s home in New Orleans.

The professor said an omission of this type could hurt the agency’s standing if it needs to return to Cantrell or his colleagues for future warrants.

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