MARCO ISLAND — A 23-year-old former East Naples man punched and pepper sprayed by a Marco Island Police officer in the back of a patrol car in 2008 has settled his civil rights lawsuit for $50,000.
Attorneys for Adrian Polanco filed a stipulation to dismiss last week, settling a federal lawsuit against the city and Officer Stephen Mariani that alleged excessive force. The settlement came five months after mediation resulted in an impasse.
The settlement brings to an end a Feb. 18, 2008, incident dramatically captured on squad car video, which showed Polanco and two friends gasping for breath, coughing and crying after being pepper sprayed. Polanco is heard reciting the Lord’s Prayer, pleading for help.
“Certainly, putting three people in the back of a vehicle who are all combative is not a good idea,” said Chief Don Hunter, who took over this summer. “You don’t strike persons who are handcuffed or who aren’t representing a danger to you, another person or property.”
Hunter said Polanco’s attorneys had sought $200,000. The $50,000 settlement will be paid by the department’s liability insurer.
Polanco was the only one of three involved to sue.
Hunter said the incident prompted Capt. Dave Baer to review department policy and make changes involving transportation of prisoners.
“If emotions were running high with the arresting officer, that officer should not transport them … unless there are no other provisions,” Hunter said.
If prisoners are combative, the new guidelines recommend not transporting more than one prisoner in one car, Hunter said.
Baer, however, said weather, the availability of officers or a jail transport vehicle and the safety of officers and prisoners also are factors.
The lawsuit stems from a brawl shortly after 11:15 p.m. Feb. 18, 2008, when Polanco, Christopher Caprari, 21, of East Naples, and Anthony Blanco, 18, of Marco Island, were kicked out of a club where they’d been at a birthday party with 20 friends.
Police reports say the three began a brawl with Mariani and an off-duty officer. Officers placed the three in a squad car and headed to the station, where Mariani’s supervisor told him to turn on the car’s video camera, direct it at the three and drive to the county jail.
The video, which begins at 12:44 a.m., shows them harassing and yelling at Mariani, challenging him to fight. Mariani stops and opens the back door, punching Polanco’s face at least three times before climbing over him and punching Blanco’s face, saying “Shut the (expletive) up.”
He closes the door as they yell, then opens it and pepper sprays them. Twenty seconds later, he sprays again, telling them to take deep breaths. For eight minutes, they thrash, scream and plead for help as Mariani drives back to the station, opens the door and hoses them with water. Polanco then prayed for help.
Seven minutes later, another officer calls for treatment for pepper spray. After they’re taken from the car at 1:15 a.m., they’re treated.
That June, Polanco pleaded to misdemeanor disorderly intoxication and was sentenced to time served since his arrest, while the others served probation.
Mariani, who joined the force in 2006 after 20 years as a New York City cop, told his bosses two days later he’d messed up.
He was suspended without pay for two weeks, assigned to 5½ months of desk duty and put on six months’ probation. In June 2008, the State Attorney’s Office charged him with misdemeanor battery, but he entered a pretrial diversion program and wasn’t convicted after completing six months of anger-management classes.
A Florida Department of Law Enforcement panel exonerated him, issuing a letter of guidance similar to probation. The panel said he was placed in an “impossible situation.”
In July, U.S. District Judge John Steele denied Mariani’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, ruling a jury could find his actions excessive.
“The amount and type of force utilized … would clearly support a finding that the force was unreasonable,” Steele wrote.
But he dismissed a negligent supervision claim against the city.
Polanco won’t be using his settlement money to celebrate any time soon. This month, he was sentenced to six months in the Collier County jail for violating probation in a 2010 drug possession case by going to Mexico to visit relatives.
Polanco’s attorney declined comment this week, saying he was awaiting Polanco’s permission to discuss the case. Attempts were unsuccessful to reach attorneys representing Mariani and the city.