An 11-member jury ruled in favor of former Little Rock police Lt. David Hudson in an excessive force case in federal court on Wednesday.
Hudson was working as an off-duty security guard at Ferneau, a restaurant in the Hillcrest neighborhood, on Oct. 29, 2011 when he punched Chris Erwin in the face seven times on the sidewalk outside after asking Erwin and his party to leave the establishment.
The jury deliberated for about two hours Wednesday before returning a decision that Hudson was reasonable in his use of force, thus denying Erwin’s claims for medical damages, pain and suffering, and punitive damages.
Erwin received three stitches for a cut on his badly bruised cheek after the incident. The City of Little Rock and the restaurant agreed to settle with Erwin over the weekend, according to his attorney.
Arguments in the civil jury trial centered around whether Erwin was intoxicated and whether he resisted arrest or refused to leave a private party they had unwittingly joined, after being asked to leave the restaurant by management and the officer.
Attorneys disputed whether Hudson exhausted all options before hitting Erwin while arresting him.
“We have an opportunity today to help our good police officers,” said Erwin’s attorney Reggie Koch in his closing arguments, encouraging the jury to "weed out the bad cops and adjust their policy.”
He told them that, “Mr. Hudson is one of those old-school cops, and he doesn’t like anyone to question his authority,” and that Erwin hadn’t resisted arrest, but had merely asked why they had to leave the restaurant.
Hudson's attorney, Bill James, asked the jury in his closing arguments, to “send a message to everybody — we’re going to let the police officers do what is reasonable.”
He said Hudson, an officer at the LRPD for 41 years, has “done nothing but sacrifice and give his life to this community.”
“We’re turning into a society of entitlement. There’s no rules,” said James.
Erwin had testified that his friend T. Blake Mitchell and the two women they were with unknowingly entered what turned out to be a private party in the restaurant after attending a fundraising event at Little Rock Catholic High School and stopping by Ciao Baci, a bar in the neighborhood.
At Ferneau, they ordered drinks and the women danced for about 30-45 minutes before a bartender asked them to leave. Lt. Hudson later asked them to leave the bar.
The altercation occurred minutes later, outside the restaurant, when Hudson attempted to arrest Erwin. The men told disputing narratives about the scene outside.
Hudson testified Tuesday that Erwin approached him in a combative manner, repeatedly asking why his group was being asked to leave the party. He said that he told Erwin to leave, and then, when he refused, put him under arrest.
Hudson said he tried to restrain Erwin and was unable to. He said Erwin moved toward him while he radioed for help, which he called a red flag.
“It was not normal behavior,” he said.
A video taken at the scene shows the officer tried to push Erwin against the building and, unable to, punched him at least seven times.
The "goal of the punches was to get him to submit to arrest,” said Hudson.
Erwin testified on Monday that he only asked the question once before he was put under arrest, without warning, and pushed against a wall. He said he suffered a blow to his head that disoriented and confused him making it harder to follow the officer’s commands.
“He charged at me,” said Erwin. “I did not resist arrest."
Judge James Moody told the jury Wednesday that Hudson had the burden of proving his use of force was justified and Erwin similarly needed to show a preponderance of evidence that the force was excessive.
Moody said a law enforcement officer is allowed to use non-deadly force if “he reasonably believes it is necessary to arrest someone or prevent escape.”
After the unanimous verdict was announced, officer Hudson smiled and nodded at his wife and father-in-law who sat in court for the entire trial.
In an interview, James said that while the video showed the beating, his side was able to convince the jury of the bigger story.
“He never complied. You’re saying he used too much force, but he never complied. I mean it wasn’t until he was forced into handcuffs that he complied and, again, as I told the jury, that’s the law of physics, he’s not following the law,” said James.
Attorney Koch described the outcome as a win-win, lauding the process.
“They have to show up here and explain themselves, under fear of being held liable, it is a healthy process that makes the United States different than other countries in the world,” he said.
He says the judge declined his request to include information in the trial about an internal investigation by the department into the incident that found Hudson used excessive force.
Hudson was given a 30-day suspension which was then overturned by the Civil Service Commission.
The City of Little Rock has so far declined to release the settlement amount it is paying Erwin.
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