By James Fanelli, DNAinfo Reporter/Producer
NEW YORK CITY — Two Colombian brothers received $1.2 million after spending a combined 17 years in prison for armed robbery convictions that were eventually thrown out.
A 12-year-old Forest Hills girl collected $115,000 after her arrest for doodling on her junior high school desk with a green erasable marker.
And a small-time thief banked $150,000 after accusing cops of smashing his head through the windshield of a car while he was in handcuffs.
The hefty sums were among 35 settlements and judgments worth $100,000 or more that the city paid between July 1, 2011, and June 30, 2012, to end lawsuits accusing the NYPD of violating civil rights, DNAinfo.com New York has learned.
In total, the three-dozen cases cost the city $22.8 million, according to data compiled by the city comptroller's office.
The largest payout this past year was $15 million to settle a class-action lawsuit accusing police of illegal arrests for loitering.
The accusations in the other lawsuits run the gamut — from illegal arrests to police brutality to cops withholding medication from inmates.
Civil rights advocates say the costly settlements and judgments should force the NYPD to reassess its tactics.The payments also come as accusations of civil rights violations have risen in recent years, according to the city comptroller's office. Between July 1, 2010, and June 30, 2011, 2,241 civil rights claims were filed against the NYPD — up 23 percent from the 1,826 claims filed a year earlier.
Meanwhile, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly have had to defend the NYPD's controversial stop-and-frisk policy from a growing chorus of critics who say the practice unfairly targets minorities.
"It was a horror show. His face looked like Frankenstein," lawyer Alexander Levine said, referring to his client Valerio Perez, who accused cops of leaving him bruised and bloodied on Oct. 19, 2009.
Perez, a small-time thief, had been chased and arrested by officers who believed he had tried to break into a car in Queens. In a lawsuit, Perez said after he was handcuffed, the cops punched him in the ribs and rammed his face through the rear windshield of a parked car, shattering the glass.
"He was blinded in one eye," said Levine, who described his client as having a "bit of a career" as a car thief.
The lawsuit accused police of excessive force and "unjustified and unconstitutional assault."
Police charged Perez with resisting arrest and possession of burglary tools, according to Levine. He eventually received an adjudication in contemplation of dismissal, Levine said. Perez settled his lawsuit for $150,000 last October.
Vernon Branch, 38, received a $324,000 offer of judgment in June from the city after also accusing police of excessive force.
The father of two, who was in the military and had never had a run-in with the law, was assaulted and arrested near his home by cops while he and friends discussed Memorial Day barbecue plans on the corner of West 163rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue on May 28, 2010, his lawsuit said.
Two officers had responded to a noise complaint in the area and acted aggressively as they approached the group of men, according the lawsuit. After asking for identification, the cops allegedly handcuffed one man and threw Branch's younger brother to the ground.
When Branch protested, an officer grabbed his arm. Branch resisted, and the cop allegedly punched him in the face, used pepper spray on him and hit him with a baton. The cop's partner also struck him, according to the lawsuit.
After the officers subdued and handcuffed Branch, they brought him to a patrol car. Branch claims an officer struck him several more times in the face and body as he sat in the backseat.
James Meyerson, Branch's lawyer, said at the time of the attack the NYPD was already monitoring one of the cops regarding three separate excessive-force complaints.
Branch was charged with assaulting an officer and resisting arrest. A grand jury voted not to indict him on the assault charge, after a passerby testified that she witnessed cops attack Branch without provocation. The Manhattan District Attorney's Office declined to go forward with the resisting arrest charge.
Branch suffered "emotional and psychological trauma" from the attack, and it led him to try to kill himself a few months later, his lawsuit says.
Meyerson, who focuses his practice on police misconduct, said he hasn't noticed an uptick in civil rights violations but said he believes the NYPD needs to reassess policing techniques like stop-and-frisks, a practice in which cops search individuals they decide are suspicious and ask for their identification.
"The stop-and-frisk policy and practice as formalized in the city of New York is reflective of a deeper attitudinal problem in policing approaches, particularly in minority neighborhoods," he said.
Last November, Arnaldo Arzu received a $125,000 settlement from the city after accusing cops of falsely arresting him four times in less than a year during stop-and-frisks.
The arrests took place between September 2007 and April 2008 at New York City Housing Authority properties in the Bronx, according to his lawsuit. In each case, Arzu said he had just left a friend's apartment when officers performing vertical sweeps of the grounds stopped him.
In each arrest, he was charged with criminal trespass. At the time the lawsuit was filed in April 2010, a judge had dismissed three of the four cases. It is unclear if the outstanding case has since been thrown out.
Arzu, who is black, claims in the lawsuit that the vertical patrols were carried out in a "purposefully racially discriminatory manner."
The lawsuit adds that because of the arrests, NYCHA denied Arzu's application to move in with his ailing mother.
Arzu's lawyer, David Rankin, declined to comment.
Christopher Dunn, an associate legal director at the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the large payouts should push the NYPD to revaluate its police force and tactics.
"These enormous settlements are a clear sign that police misconduct is a serious problem in New York City. Instead of wasting taxpayer dollars year after year, the city should be working hard to identify unlawful NYPD practices and out-of-control officers and instituting reforms to prevent misconduct before it happens," Dunn said.
Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly have vigorously defended the department's tactics, particularly stop-and-frisks, saying it keep guns off the street and is an effective policing tool in high-crime neighborhoods.
The city Law Department said settlements were not an admission of guilt and protect the city from costly judgments.
"Police officers cope with incredibly difficult situations on a daily basis," said Celeste Koeleveld, the executive assistant corporation counsel for public safety.
"As we've often noted, the decision to settle a lawsuit is not an indication of wrongdoing by the police officer or officers involved. Rather, it is a complex business judgment based on, among other things, the inherent riskiness of litigation.
"We look at each case stringently and weigh obvious risk factors like potential jury awards and automatic attorney fees. Of course, we also aggressively litigate dozens of civil rights cases a year and often win at trial."
NYPD spokesman Paul Browne declined to comment on specific cases the city settled in the past year, but called many of them frivolous.
"There’s a cottage industry in suing police, among other city agencies, that keeps the New York plaintiffs’ bar in Armani," he said.
"We like the Chicago model where plaintiffs are forced to go to trial with some of their more preposterous claims especially. We understand risk assessment and economic calculations go into decisions to settle. However, there’s a price to reputation too. In Chicago, they’ve saved reputations and public funds."
Some of the incidents in the lawsuits do border on the surreal.
Alexa Gonzalez received $115,000 in August 2011 after she sued the NYPD and the city's Department of Education over a wrongful arrest.
In February 2010, Queens cops handcuffed Gonzalez, then 12 years old, and hauled her out of Russell Sage Junior High School for writing, "Lexie was here 2/1/10. I love my babis, Abbey and Faith," on her desk and scrawling a small smiling face in a circle, according to her lawsuit.
A damp paper towel could have easily wiped away the doodle, but school officials called cops, the lawsuit says. Officers documented the vandalism and took Gonzalez to the 112th Precinct, where she was handcuffed to a pole for two hours before she was released to her mother.
"She didn't commit any violation. It was erasable," her lawyer, Joseph Rosenthal, said. "They walked her through the school in handcuffs in front of the teachers and students."
The largest individual payout went to Napoleon Cardenas, who received an $800,000 settlement from the city in April for a case that one law enforcement source described as a "movie of the week." Napoleon's brother, Carlos, also received a $400,000 settlement from the city in April.
The brothers each spent more than eight years behind bars for the July 21, 1994, armed robbery of diamond dealers who were carrying $1.5 million in jewels. But a reinvestigation by Queens District Attorney Richard Brown's office ultimately led to their convictions being vacated in 2007.
Napoleon had been linked to the heist by coincidence.
During the Elmhurst, Queens, robbery, four thieves had tried to hijack an off-duty police officer's car. While struggling with the bandits, the officer fired off a shot with his revolver, hitting one robber in the hand.
Police later took one of the injured jewelry dealers and the cop to St. John's Queens Hospital for treatment. Around the same time, Napoleon, with his brother escorting him, arrived at the hospital's emergency room with a gunshot wound to his left hand.
An evasive Napoleon told police that a friend's gun had accidentally discharged in his apartment earlier in the day, but his story raised suspicions.
Detectives had the diamond dealer and the off-duty cop identify Napoleon as one of the suspects. Initially they couldn't, but eventually the dealer did. Another dealer eventually said Carlos was part of the robbery crew.
Napoleon, whom federal investigators had previously busted for credit card fraud, further hurt his credibility when he absconded the country before he was to begin his four-month sentence in that case.
While Napoleon was on the lam, Carlos was convicted by a jeweler's testimony. Napoleon eventually returned to the U.S. and was also convicted of the robbery in 1999.
The brothers always maintained their innocence in the case, even when offered lenient plea deals. They ultimately swayed the Queens District Attorney's Office to reexamine the case in 2005, when Napoleon had bullet fragments removed from his hand to prove they did not come from a cop-issued gun.
An analysis conducted by Peter Diaczuk and Dr. Thomas A. Kubic of John Jay College of Criminal Justice showed the bullet didn't come from an NYPD-issued revolver. The findings didn't clear the brothers, but they spurred prosecutors to interview a confidential informant who fingered other suspects for the heist.
After the brothers aced polygraph tests and investigators interviewed people believed to be the real culprits, prosecutors requested a judge toss the convictions.
In 2009 the brothers sued the police department, accusing detectives of fabricating identifications and failing to investigate exculpatory evidence.
Aside from the city payouts, the state reached an $800,000 settlement with Carlos and a $400,000 settlement with Napoleon. In total, each brother has collected $1.2 million in compensation.
"It's a terrible thing to spend eight years in prison for something you didn't do," said Irving Cohen, the brothers' lawyer.