SAN JOSE -- A federal jury Friday found that a former San Jose police officer used "unreasonable" force by repeatedly jolting a naked, unarmed truck driver who was high on PCP with a Taser -- and awarded $1 million to his family for his wrongful death.

Steve Salinas, 47, died six years ago during the confrontation with four police officers at the Vagabond Motel on North First Street. The jury exonerated three of those officers, who acknowledged urging former Officer Barry Chickayasu to zap Salinas but said they had no idea he had fired the device 10 times in 93 seconds.

The unanimous jury verdict in the federal civil case, which came after about a day and a half of deliberations, is significant for several reasons.

It is the first time San Jose has lost a lawsuit involving a Taser-related death since the police began using the stun guns in 2004 in hopes of cutting down injuries and reducing the need for officers to fire their guns. At least five people have died in the past nine years after being shocked with a Taser. Relatives in three of those cases settled their lawsuits against the city for relatively small amounts ranging from $10,000 to $200,000.

The city, which is self-insured, will pay the $1 million award in this case out of the general fund; Chickayasu, who did not show up for his own trial and left the department after being disciplined for an unrelated matter, is not financially liable. The family had sought $12 million.


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The Salinas case also is a milestone because even though there have been other seven-figure awards in favor of survivors around the country recently, most Taser-related claims fail because other factors are successfully blamed for the deaths -- including PCP and other drugs.

The jury of five men and three women in this case concluded the Taser was one cause of Salinas' death, not the sole cause. The medical examiner had listed PCP as the cause in his report; however, he testified at trial under questioning by the family's attorney that the Taser was also a cause.

The jury left the courthouse in downtown San Jose without talking to anyone about the verdict. But the decision was hailed by Salinas' four now-grown children and community activists, who said they hoped it will result in less aggressive use of the Taser.

"It's a historic win for civil rights in San Jose," said Raj Jayadev, director of Silicon Valley DeBug, a community organization for young adults. He is also a member of Coalition for Justice and Accountability, an alliance of civil rights groups that formed after the controversial 2009 police shooting of Daniel Pham, a knife-wielding mentally ill man. "It will make officers think twice before they cross the line."

"I'm just grateful the jury seen the truth," said Noreen Salinas, 35, one of Salinas' four children. "It's justice for my father."

The verdict against the officer also was noteworthy because San Jose juries tend to place great trust in the police, presuming they are doing their best to avoid excessive force under rapidly developing, potentially dangerous situations.

But in this case, that trust may have been undermined during the Salinas civil trial because Chickayasu declined to attend -- a glaring absence that the family's attorney, Dale Galipo, pointed out to the jury.

"You have an empty chair and you have a plaintiff's attorney pointing at an empty chair," City Attorney Rick Doyle said, suggesting that the jury may have gotten the impression that Chickayasu believed his own behavior was indefensible.

The jury also was told but did not appear to put any stock in the fact that one of the other former officers, Jason Woodall, was convicted of felony grand theft for timecard fraud about two years after the encounter with Salinas and resigned from the department. The other two officers who were not held liable were Rod Smith, who is still with the department, and retired Sgt. Mike McLaren.

The city argued that Chickayasu had to stun Salinas repeatedly so the other cops could handcuff him.

Salinas weighed 260 pounds and had so much PCP in his system he was grunting unintelligibly in Room 119, argued Clifford Greenberg, the city's lead attorney. People who take PCP, or angel dust -- especially in extremely large doses like Salinas -- typically feel little if any pain and can become violent.

However, Galipo stressed that Salinas was naked, did not have a weapon and was not combative. The lawyer also claimed that the four officers, who collectively outweighed Salinas by about more than 600 pounds, violated their own department's Taser policy.

Under the guidelines, officers are to avoid multiple Taser "applications," if possible. Officers are also warned that prolonged use of a Taser can lead to death, and that drug users are at higher risk of adverse medical reactions.

Doyle said the city hasn't decided whether to appeal the verdict. Questions remain about the cause of Salinas' death, he contended, which Greenberg will raise in post-trial conferences with Galipo and Judge Edward J. Davila. Doyle also said he plans to review the case with the police brass, as is customary whenever there's a verdict against the department.

"Believe me, the police will look at this seriously to see if there is anything they need to do differently," Doyle said.

Taser International had been named in the lawsuit, but the company successfully argued that it wasn't liable for Salinas' death because it adequately warned police of the risks of using the device.

Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482. Twitter.com/tkaplanreport.