The Cop vs. the Pot Smoker 

A jury awarded James Martin $459,000 for getting pummeled. Does he deserve the money?

Martin claims Officer Brown made good on the - ass-beating. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Martin claims Officer Brown made good on the ass-beating.
James Martin walked into Dina's Pizza in Old Brooklyn just before closing time, wearing a tie-dyed sweatshirt and jeans, his hair in a ponytail. To one of the off-duty cops sitting at a table, he looked like a throwback to the '70s. He wasn't a regular, so he didn't know the bar was a hangout for policemen from Cleveland's Second District. He made the mistake of complaining, loud enough for everyone to hear, that he'd just gotten a ticket for pot possession outside a bar in Parma.

He thought it was unfair, because his wife had smoked the joint, not him. She left the roach in the ashtray, but he got the ticket, because he told the cops it was his van. After he and his wife rehashed the incident, he turned to three women standing near him and repeated the story. He told them pot should be legal and went on about the environmental virtues of hemp and how he's a member of the marijuana-legalization group NORML.

What happened next is a matter of dispute. This much is clear: The angry pot smoker and an annoyed cop got into a confrontation. Soon, Martin was in the hospital, then in jail. In November, a jury awarded Martin almost a half-million dollars, deciding that the policeman had attacked Martin and violated his civil rights.

Four years after the incident at Dina's, James Martin still dresses in stoner casual -- a flannel shirt, jeans, a necklace with a bull's skull on it -- but he's cut off his ponytail. People treat him with more respect, he says, now that his curly hair is short and slicked back.

He says the incident was the third time cops have beaten him up. Several years ago in Parma, he says, police roughed him up after arresting him at a bar because they mistook him for another James Martin. Cleveland police arrested him in 1995 after a domestic dispute with his brother-in-law, but they released him without filing charges. He says police beat him while he was in jail. But he didn't file complaints either time.

As for the night at Dina's, he says he wasn't loud or obnoxious, and he didn't say anything bad about police in general, as some people have claimed. This is how he describes what happened:

After complaining about the pot-possession ticket, he went up to the bar for a second round of drinks and turned to find Patrick Brown, whom he didn't know, blocking his way.

"Excuse me, sir, I need to give my wife her drink," Martin said.

"I don't have to move," Brown answered. "This is my bar, and I don't like you or what you stand for."

"Excuse me, I don't want no problems here," Martin said. But Brown shoved Martin, spilling his drinks on a woman sitting nearby. The woman and the man she was with, a big guy in a leather jacket, stood up.

"Now you owe me a drink!" Martin said.

"I don't owe you nothing but a fucking ass-beating!" Brown answered. He put his gun on the bar, and another man -- his partner, Mike Kish -- quickly picked it up.

Across the bar, Martin's wife, Karin, saw Brown put something on the bar, but didn't know what it was. The women near her, who had heard James Martin complain about the ticket, tried to convince Karin to intervene.

"They said, 'You'd better get him out of here. These are all cops and EMS workers.' I said, 'He's a big boy. He can take care of himself.'"

Brown grabbed James Martin by the ponytail and jeans.

"Call the police!" Martin shouted to the bartender -- not knowing Brown and Kish were cops. Brown threw him out the door.

The bartender, Marisa Minasola, tells essentially the same story: She saw Brown push Martin, spilling his drinks; saw Brown lay his gun on the bar; and heard Brown threaten Martin with an "ass-whuppin'."

She says Brown never identified himself as a police officer and was wrong to haul Martin out of Dina's. "It was uncalled for," she says.

Martin says Brown threw him out the door and onto the ground.

"I went to get up, and he kicked me in the face with steel-toed boots. One kick knocked me out," Martin says. "When I finally came to, he was still kicking me." Martin says Brown kicked him about 20 times when he was conscious, and that, when he felt all his bruises afterward, he guessed he'd been kicked 30 times in all.

Martin tried to crawl away, but Brown wouldn't let him.

"You're going to jail," Brown said.

Meanwhile, back in the bar, various women were confronting Karin Martin. "One of the girls pushed me. I hit her. Another woman came over and asked if I was with him. I said, 'Yeah.' From what I remember, she grabbed me by the back of the hair and pushed me. [One woman said,] 'Your kind aren't wanted in here.'"

They threw her outside, where she saw Brown kicking her husband, with no one else around. "He was on all fours, wasn't saying anything, just moving as the kicks would fall. He'd lift himself back up and get ready for the next kick."

She shouted at Brown to stop.

"Pat's exact words were, 'You'd better get the fuck out of here, bitch, or you'll be next.'" Then more people came out of the bar, and Brown stopped kicking.

A police car and an ambulance showed up. Martin was arrested, and a policeman searched him as he was put into an ambulance. He found Brown's wallet, with badge, in Martin's jacket pocket. Martin says he doesn't know how it got there, but suspects it was planted. That, Martin says, was the first time he knew Brown was a policeman.

"I'm going to sue you for what you did! I have rights!" he shouted.

Minasola says the cops came back into the bar, and one of them bragged about how they'd beaten Martin up.

The ambulance took Martin to MetroHealth Medical Center, where he received stitches in his lower lip. "He has blood all over his face," reads the medical report. "Several loose teeth in the front . . . two lacerations on the lip. Tenderness over right side of the ribs." Photos of Martin taken a few days afterward show an ugly red wound across part of his lower lip and what appear to be small bruises around his mouth and a long yellow bruise on his arm. One of his teeth was chipped and had to be pulled out, he says.

Martin refused to take a blood test at the hospital. He says he offered to take it if Brown took one, too, and maintains he had only three drinks that night -- two in Parma, one at Dina's. He admits he smoked a joint that afternoon, but not that night.

Booked on charges of assaulting a police officer, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct, Martin spent the next day in jail. He says Patrick Brown came into his cell in the morning and warned him not to file a complaint, or he'd make Martin's life hell, because he knew where Martin lived and could make the assault charge stick.

But the prosecutor elected not to pursue the assault charge. Eventually, Martin got the resisting arrest charge dropped, too, in exchange for pleading guilty to disorderly conduct and paying a $100 fine.

Martin says his ribs hurt for almost a year, and that the attack plunged him into a depression that left him unable to work for months. His family's debts piled up, and they declared bankruptcy.

Soon after the incident, Martin hired a private investigator. Once his case was settled, he filed a complaint with the city against Brown. And in January 1999, he sued Patrick Brown and the City of Cleveland for $1.5 million, alleging civil rights violations, malice, and infliction of emotional distress.

"I wish I could sit down with you and tell you what really happened," Patrick Brown tells Scene. He says he's not allowed to comment until his appeals are exhausted. Still, he adds one more thing: "If you're doing your own investigation, you look at the photographs and medical records, and see if you think it's indicative of being beaten unconscious and being beaten 30 times."

In Brown's report and his statements to investigators and lawyers, he tells an almost completely different story from Martin's:

When Brown walked in the bar with his partner, Mike Kish, he heard Martin complaining about getting a ticket in Parma, "bothering numerous patrons." Then, Martin said, "Police officers are fucking assholes, and all pot smokers should unite and fuck up police officers!"

Brown overheard one or two bar employees ask Martin to leave. He refused. Then Martin got up from his table and nudged Brown -- who was wearing a sweater with the initials CPD -- in the shoulder as he walked by.

Brown and Kish identified themselves as police officers and asked Martin to leave. Brown says he put his wallet on the bar -- not his gun.

"You're not in uniform. What the fuck are you going to do?" Martin replied. So Brown hauled a kicking and struggling Martin out the door with the help of EMS technician Nick Callas, who had been drinking nearby.

Outside, Brown says, Martin swore at him and shouted that he'd make sure Brown lost his job. Another customer came outside -- the big guy whose date was spilled on, whom witnesses know only as Mickey. Martin and Mickey started fighting. (In the police report, Brown wrote that witnesses told him Martin and Mickey had fought earlier in the bar. He also blamed Martin's busted lip on the second fight with Mickey, though in a deposition later, he said he didn't know how Martin's lip was injured.)

Brown told Martin he was under arrest, and Martin broke away from Mickey and came at Brown. They fought briefly, until Brown, Callas, and Kish subdued Martin. Mickey disappeared during the struggle.

Brown says he visited Martin in his cell the next day, but did not threaten him. He says he only had one drink that night, never threatened Martin with an "ass-beating" in the bar, and struck him only a few times to subdue him.

Witnesses back up parts of Brown's story, but in the flurry of knocked-over chairs and flying fists, a lot of details blur. Most of the witnesses at Dina's that night agree Martin was loud and obnoxious.

"I was working one wall away from the bar, and I could hear a very loudmouthed person out there," says kitchen manager Dan Kuebler. Occasionally he poked his head into the bar and saw James Martin talking about getting busted for pot. He says he heard Martin shout, "Fuck all the cops, those bastards!" Kish, as well as Callas's friend Cindy Woide, also told investigators they heard Martin cursing about police.

But Minasola, the bartender, says Martin never said "fuck the police" and wasn't obnoxious. "It was a loud bar. Everybody's loud," she says. She says Brown never identified himself as a police officer, and that no one asked Martin to leave. When she is read Brown's report about what happened inside the bar, she says, "That's not true."

After that, the stories get more confusing. Kuebler says he never asked Martin to leave, contradicting Brown's report. Callas and bar employee Dan Rudd told Martin's private investigator that Mickey punched Martin inside the bar as the confrontation heated up. But Kish didn't mention that to a police sergeant who reviewed Martin's complaint. Brown said he heard about it afterward but didn't see it, and Minasola says it never happened.

Kish and Callas's statements to investigators don't fit with Brown's report that all three struggled to subdue Martin. Kish says he heard there was a fight outside, went out, and pulled Mickey aside, but that Brown was already holding Martin down by the time he went back to assist him. Callas told Martin's private investigator that he didn't see the fight outside, and that Martin was no longer resisting by the time he came out.

Kish and Callas told Scene they couldn't talk about the case. Woide and Rudd could not be reached. Mickey was never seen again.

The sergeant who reviewed Martin's complaint two years later wrote that his reported injuries didn't seem severe enough to fit his story. In his conclusion, the sergeant seemed to believe that Mickey caused most of the damage. Minasola never called the sergeant back, so he never heard her contradict Brown's account. The city prosecutor elected not to press charges against Brown.

Both the sergeant and Brown's lawyers noted Martin's previous run-ins with the police. The sergeant mentioned Martin's arrest in Parma in his report. Police records there state that Martin was arrested for disorderly conduct in 1991 and taken to jail, where he struggled with police and spat in one officer's eye. The Parma cops added another charge -- assaulting a police officer, with "saliva" listed as the weapon -- but that charge was dismissed, and Martin denies it. Court records say Martin was found guilty of disorderly conduct.

In November, Martin's case went to trial, and the jury had to decide whether he or Brown was telling the truth.

Martin's attorney, Joe Jacobs, called Minasola and Karin Martin as witnesses. Karin Martin cried repeatedly as she described watching Brown kick her husband.

Jacobs says the bartender's testimony that Brown put his gun on the bar and the fact that Brown didn't charge Martin with stealing his wallet helped convince the jury that something was wrong with Brown's story.

"We all know that this didn't happen," Jacobs says of Brown's account. "The story changes." He calls the story that Mickey attacked Martin a fabrication and says he exposed inconsistencies in the accounts of Brown's witnesses during trial.

"Jim Martin said what happened to him, and it was believed," Jacobs says. "He's an honest guy."

After a seven-day trial, the jury ruled against Brown on all Martin's claims, ordered Brown to pay $359,000, and ordered the City of Cleveland to pay $100,000. Scene reached four of the eight jurors, but all declined to talk about their verdict.

Spokespeople for the City of Cleveland also declined comment. The attorney for Brown and the city has asked Judge John Angelotta to overturn the verdict, calling it a "miscarriage of justice." The judge hasn't ruled yet.

Robert Beck, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association, says he believes that the evidence -- especially the medical records -- doesn't support Martin's story or the jury's verdict.

"I know Patrick Brown. I know what kind of guy he is. He's proven to me to be even-tempered. He likes helping people. He's always ready to respond to a problem without hesitation. The action he is being accused of taking against Mr. Martin seems to me to be completely foreign to the way Officer Brown conducts himself every day."

Dan Kuebler, too, thinks Brown got a "raw deal" and that Martin exaggerated his injuries. At trial, Kuebler identified Martin from a picture that showed his scabbed-over mouth. "If he got punched in the face to get that fat lip, he definitely deserved it," he says.

James Martin says he's glad he stood up for himself. "I didn't do nothing to deserve [the attack]," he says. "I was just having a conversation."

Now, he rarely goes to bars, except to see a band he knows through NORML. In that crowd, he's among friends.

He says he would have acted differently if he had known what kind of crowd hung out at Dina's. "Now, knowing that there was a bar full of policemen, I would have never even said nothing. I would have kept my mouth shut."

But he didn't. And because of that, he went through a lot of pain -- and he may soon be $459,000 richer.

More by Erick Trickey


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