Stockton Police Used Excessive Force in False Arrest That Knocked Out Teen's Teeth, Jury Finds

Joseph Green and his mother, Sheronica Champion, pose for a photograph outside of San Joaquin County Superior Court on Jan. 17. (Sandhya Dirks/KQED)

A civil jury has awarded almost three-quarters of a million dollars to Stockton resident Joseph Green in a long-stalled civil lawsuit that accused the city and two police officers of false arrest and excessive force.

Then 16-year-old Green stopped at a gas station convenience store on Feb. 17, 2011, to buy candy for his 5-year-old sister while his mother filled the car up with gas. Green tried to pay with a damaged bill, which the clerk wouldn’t take. Plainclothes Stockton police Officer Robert Johnson, who was grabbing water with his partner, Officer Robert Wong, was waiting in line behind Green.

The store’s surveillance cameras captured a violent altercation between Green and Johnson that played out over the next 10 minutes, video that was played over and over again in court last week. The video appears to contradict information in Johnson’s police report on the incident and parts of his sworn testimony in the civil case. The arrest for allegedly trespassing and resisting arrest ended with Green being hauled out of the store in handcuffs, his blood and two front teeth left behind on the floor.

The jury found on Jan. 22 that Johnson had falsely arrested Green and had used excessive force. Green was awarded $710,000.

The Arrest

The video, which contains no audio, shows that after the clerk refused to take Green’s damaged dollar, Johnson got involved. Johnson wrote in his police report that he directed Green to leave the store, that he pulled out his badge to identify himself and that Green responded by saying “F you and your badge.” Green said Johnson escalated the situation first, yelling at him to “get the F out of the store.”

This video has been edited for brevity and clarity. View the raw video files here.

The two can be seen in heated conversation for about 15 seconds before Green turns to leave, walking toward the exit, opening the door and taking a step out into the rainy afternoon. Johnson follows him, grabs him from behind and pulls him back inside. Johnson testified that he told Green he was under arrest for trespassing, and Green’s attempt to leave meant that he was fleeing arrest.

Green’s attorney, Charles Piccuta, argued that it was absurd for the officer to arrest a suspect for trespassing at precisely the moment he was leaving. What really happened, Piccuta said, was a reaction to Green’s words.

“Anyone who challenges his authority is going to pay,” Piccuta told the jury. “That’s what he did, he paid him back for mouthing out.”

Johnson said as soon as he pulled Green back into the store, there was a tussle.

“We were pushing and pulling,” Johnson testified.

Green said what happened was less of a tussle and more of an attack, that Johnson grabbed him and pushed him to the ground.

While the video angle changes, almost all of the incident is captured. Less than 10 seconds pass between Johnson grabbing Green as he tries to leave and Green ending up on the ground in an aisle of the convenience store. Johnson testified that they tripped over a stack of shopping baskets. Green said he clipped those carts as he was already on his way down, forcefully pushed by Johnson.

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Use of Force

Johnson testified that Green’s teeth were knocked out when they fell. Green said he fell onto his back and that he was injured after he was already on the ground.

Johnson said that once Green was on the ground, he punched the 16 year old to prevent Green from spitting blood on him.

Green and his lawyer also said that while Johnson held him on the ground, first waiting for handcuffs and then for a uniformed officer, Johnson pressed the full weight of his body onto Green, making it almost impossible for him to breathe. Green said he thought he was going to suffocate. At the time of the incident, the teenage Green weighed 130 pounds while Johnson totaled 220 pounds. Johnson told the court he used proper police procedure to detain Green.

There’s a key point in the surveillance video, when Green argued the officer slammed his face into the floor. Green’s legs appear to jerk upward in response to the blow.

Johnson denied that he ever thrust Green’s head to the floor.

“That’s me rolling Mr. Green back,” Johnson testified. “I picked him up by his shoulders and rolled him back over to his stomach.”

Johnson denied that it was a use of force.

“I just view that as rolling him back over. We roll people over all the time to pat them down,” Johnson said.

The Evidence

Johnson testified that Green was carrying a “black digital scale,” which he said made him believe Green could be involved in selling drugs and could be carrying a gun.

“In my experience, people who carry black digital scales are involved in the narcotics trade,” Johnson told the jury. The scale was never entered into evidence and cannot be seen on the video. Johnson said it was returned back to Green. Green said there was never any scale.

There’s another claim made by the defense: that after Green was arrested, Johnson staged the scene to support the story he was building about how Green got injured.

After Green was taken away in handcuffs, the video shows Johnson returning to the stack of handheld shopping baskets.

Johnson can be seen taking the baskets out of the holder and placing them near the middle of the aisle. He put the baskets down almost exactly where they landed after Green first went down, and then he snapped a picture. Later, that photograph would end up attached to the police report with no explanation and no mention of the repositioning. On the stand, Johnson said he moved the baskets and photographed them “to show the narrowness of the aisle.”

The jury found Johnson acted with “malice, oppression or fraud,” and that his partner, Officer Wong, failed to stop the excessive use of force and played a role in Green’s false arrest. Green and his lawyer decided not to ask for punitive damages in exchange for the defendants waiving their right to appeal and promising to pay the awarded amount within 60 days.

Piccuta said that he believed the video footage made all the difference in the jury’s verdict.

“I don’t know that we would have as strong a chance of winning this case, but for the video,” Piccuta said.

Both Johnson and Wong are currently employed as police officers in the city of Stockton. Last year, Wong was promoted to sergeant. In 2018, Johnson was selected as officer of the year.

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