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Christmas v. City of Chicago

October 21, 2010

BYRON CHRISTMAS, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
CITY OF CHICAGO, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Blanche M. Manning United States District Judge

Judge Blanche M. Manning

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Plaintiffs Byron Christmas, Tiffany Banks, and their daughter Naomi Christmas, sued the City of Chicago and several of its police officers alleging numerous federal and state law claims, including that their civil rights were violated during an illegal search, false arrest, and when officers left newborn-Naomi behind at the scene of the arrests. Jurors found in favor of the defendants. The plaintiffs now seek a new trial under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59, arguing that they were denied a fair trial by the defendants' alleged violations of this court's evidentiary rulings, coupled with allegedly improper remarks by defense counsel.

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a), a new trial may be granted where (1) a verdict is against the weight of the evidence, (2) damages are excessive, or (3) other reasons made the trial unfair to the moving party. See Pickett v. Sheridan Health Care Center, 610 F.3d 434, 440 (7th Cir. 2010).

The plaintiffs contend that multiple reasons made their trial unfair. The court will address several of those reasons together as they involve allegations that defense counsel and/or the defendants referred to evidence excluded by the court in order to portray Byron Christmas as a drug dealer.

References to Drug Dealing

A. Sidebar Discussion

First, the plaintiffs contend that they were denied a fair trial during a sidebar when, in a voice loud enough to be heard by jurors, defense counsel told the court that an anonymous 911 caller was scared to death of Byron Christmas, adding "thank the Lord that she is not in this courtroom." Plaintiffs' counsel asserts that their own clients heard the comments and, therefore, jurors must have also heard the comments as the jury box is next to where the plaintiffs sat. However, during this trial the court adhered to its practice of switching the courtroom's sound system over to white noise during sidebar discussions. The court's jury box is filled with 4 speakers aimed directly at jurors and, when white noise is played over those speakers, jurors cannot hear sidebar discussions even they can be heard by others in the courtroom. The court specifically recalls that sidebar discussion at issue and the plaintiffs' contemporaneous objection to the volume of defense counsel's voice. The court was satisfied then, and remains satisfied now, that defense counsel's statements were not so loud that jurors could have heard them over the white noise that filled the jury box, even if others outside the box heard counsel's statements.

Accordingly, counsel's statements at sidebar are not a basis for a new trial.

B. Officer Loaiza's Testimony

Next, the plaintiffs contend that they received an unfair trial when defendant officer Luis Loaiza described the assignment he received from dispatch the day of the arrest of Christmas and Banks. Outside the presence of the jury, the court ruled that Officer Loaiza could testify that on August 27, 2007, he had received a call from dispatch to look for a 500-pound man selling drugs out of a gold Dodge Intrepid. He was further allowed to testify that the previous day he had received calls from dispatch about reports of drug activity in the same area, but could not testify that those calls had described a 500-pound man. Nevertheless, Loaiza testified both that on the 27th he received a dispatch call about a 500-pound drug dealer, and that the description of the suspect that he had received on the 27th was the same as the description of the suspect he had received on previous occasions.

The plaintiffs contend that Loaiza's testimony about earlier reports of a 500-pound man selling drugs denied them a fair trial because it contributed to creating the perception that Christmas was a drug dealer. However, plaintiffs' counsel did not object at the time to Loaiza's testimony. Instead, they waited until after Loaiza's direct examination to first raise the issue with the court. As the court explained at that time:

The Court: I didn't hear an objection.

Mr. Johnson: Well, if we would have objected, it ...


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