$3.25 million judgment against San Jose tossed


Photo of Henry K. Lee

San Jose police acted recklessly when they placed a family's three children into protective custody despite any evidence they were being abused, but a jury's $3.25 million damage award against the city was excessive, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Ronald Whyte in San Jose said the jury's award in April was "excessive to the extreme" and blamed faulty instructions he gave to members of the panel. Whyte ordered a new trial on whether damages should be awarded to the children's parents, Tracy Watson and Renee Stalker.

But Whyte declined to toss out the verdict altogether in his ruling Wednesday, saying evidence at the trial showed that police "took the children in reckless disregard of plaintiffs' rights and misused and abused their authority."

The case stems from an incident in 2005, when police entered the family's home without a warrant and seized two of their three children, a 4-year-old autistic boy and a 2-year-old boy.

The city has said police and social workers were concerned about the welfare of the couple's 8-year-old daughter, suspecting that she had been abused because of behavioral problems at school. The girl was removed from the family a day after her siblings.

But Watson and Stalker denied there had been any abuse and said their children, particularly their sons, had been removed despite the absence of any evidence they were in danger.

Whyte agreed, saying there was "absolutely no evidence of abuse or neglect" of the boys.

After a trial, a jury awarded $2 million in punitive damages, saying police Sgt. Craig Blank and Officer William Hoyt had violated the family's constitutional rights. The panel awarded an additional $1.25 million in compensatory damages to the family.

The family's attorney, Peter Johnson, was not available for comment on whether the couple would appeal the judge's decision or head to a new trial on damages.

E-mail Henry K. Lee at hlee@sfchronicle.com.