A judge previously found the officers violated the man’s constitutional rights.
A jury awarded $29,500 Tuesday to a man after a federal judge found three St. Paul police officers violated his constitutional rights by entering his apartment without a warrant, and arresting and searching him.
David Elgersma, 34, filed a lawsuit over the 2019 incident and U.S. District Judge Katherine Menendez ruled in January that the officers’ actions were unlawful.
A trial began Monday and the only issue for jurors to decide was how much money Elgersma was entitled to. He testified, as did the three officers.
Assistant St. Paul City Attorney Tony Edwards told jurors the city was requesting $1, the required minimum, in compensatory damages and nothing in punitive damages. Elgersma’s attorney, Tim Phillips, said in court that would mean “paying the weakest penalty on earth in response to the most important rights on which our society is based.”
Phillips asked the jury to award $10,000 in compensatory damages for Elgersma’s emotional distress and $50,000 in punitive damages to discourage the officers involved and others from violating people’s rights.
Edwards pointed out what the officers’ body-worn cameras showed: That they carried out the arrest with no force, threats or raised voices.
“They wouldn’t have done this on purpose, violated his constitutional rights,” he said. “… Who would do that with video cameras running? … They thought what they were doing was OK. Now, they were wrong, there was a technical violation of the law.”
The St. Paul police sergeant who led the Elgersma investigation, Heather Weyker, has come under scrutiny before and was previously sued.
Menendez told jurors they could consider information about the past case when deciding about the credibility of her testimony in the Elgersma case.
Why police went to his apartment
Elgersma served as treasurer and president of the Minnesota Students’ Cooperative, which owns and operates homes near the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus. He believed — and it would later turn out he was correct — that the property manager’s financial manager, Mai Houa Xiong, was stealing money from the housing cooperative, Phillips told jurors.
Phillips said Elgersma should have called the police. Instead, he transferred money from the housing cooperative account to his personal account “to keep it safe” from the financial manager; he didn’t spend it,” Phillips said.
Meanwhile, Xiong filed a police report in St. Paul saying money had been transferred out of the co-op account to Elgersma. Weyker was assigned to investigate. After collecting information, she made plans to arrest Elgersma and she, Sgt. Lynette Cherry and Sgt. Christopher Hansen went to Elgersma’s apartment building in Maplewood on July 11, 2019.
The building manager suggested the maintenance man knock on Elgersma’s door under the pretense that there was a water leak, which the officers agreed to. When Elgersma opened the door, the plainclothes officers quickly went in and handcuffed Elgersma. They patted him down and did a cursory search of his apartment.
The legal issues
The officers didn’t announce themselves as police when they went in the apartment, entered without permission and then asked if they could chat with Elgersma after they were already inside, Menendez wrote in a January order.
Weyker and Hansen acknowledged in their depositions that they knew it was unlawful to enter someone’s apartment without a warrant, unless the person agreed to it or there was an emergency. They also knew a warrant was required to arrest someone in their home and they said they didn’t have one.
Elgersma contended the officers violated his Fourth Amendment rights, which protects from unreasonable searches and seizures. Menendez agreed.
Asked Monday whether St. Paul police have changed or clarified policies since the judge’s order, spokesman Sgt. Mike Ernster said the department “consistently reviews our policies and procedures to ensure we are in line with legal standards when providing public safety.”
What happened after arrest
After an investigation, Xiong, the co-op’s property management financial manager, was sentenced to federal prison in July for embezzling more than $1 million from homeowners’ associations throughout the Twin Cities metro.
Following the St. Paul police arrest of Elgersma in 2019, he was charged with felony theft for transferring $25,000 from the housing co-operative account to his own. He pleaded guilty, but wasn’t convicted of a crime. He completed probation and paid back the money, and the charge against him was dismissed.
Elgersma said he had a large amount of stress during the arrest. For a time after, he was “spooked,” Phillips said. If he heard floorboards outside his apartment squeak, he said he worried “they were going to sneak-attack arrest me again.” He’s been wary and fearful of police since it happened, Phillips said.
When it came to punitive damages, Edwards argued none was needed to discourage officers from similar conduct in the future.
“You can imagine how much police like being sued for civil rights violations and what sorts of effects that may have,” Edwards said.
Weyker was told a few months ago that there is an open file in internal affairs regarding the Elgersma arrest, she said in court. St. Paul police internal affairs investigations are completed after criminal and civil claims are finished.
The jury awarded Elgersma $1,000 in compensatory damages. For punitive damages, they assessed $17,500 for Weyker’s actions, $10,000 for Cherry’s and $1,000 for Hansen’s.
In another federal lawsuit against St. Paul police officers, jurors last month awarded a city-record $11.5 million to the family of a man fatally shot by two officers in 2017. The city of St. Paul is required to indemnify employees for damages if they’re acting within the performance of their duties, a city spokesman said at the time.
Investigator previously scrutinized
Weyker was a member of a FBI sex-trafficking task force when, in 2010, federal charges were announced against multiple people in a multi-state juvenile sex-trafficking operation said to be controlled by gangs. She was the lead investigator.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later underscored a district court’s analysis that Weyker “likely exaggerated or fabricated important aspects” of an alleged victim’s story, that she lied to a grand jury and also later during a detention hearing, court documents said.
Edwards asked Weyker in court Monday about the sex-trafficking case, including whether she intentionally said anything incorrect in a report or to a grand jury. “Never,” she answered.
People who had been charged and locked up sued Weyker. They haven’t prevailed in lawsuits.
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