The U.S. Supreme Court denied an appeal by five Connecticut police departments over a drug raid that killed an unarmed man and injured an Easton homeowner in 2008.
The high court’s action means a federal lawsuit by the homeowner, Ronald Terebesi, formerly of Dogwood Drive in Easton, can go forward against the Easton, Monroe, Trumbull, Darien, and Wilton police departments, the named police defendants in the case, and the municipalities of Easton and Monroe.
The Supreme Court rendered its decision in the case of Torresso et al. v. Terebesi on April 20. It validates a previous ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York on Aug. 21, 2014, that the five police departments were not shielded from the lawsuit by government immunity.
The incident shocked the small, pastoral town of Easton on a gray day almost seven years ago when the Southwest Regional Emergency Response Team from Easton and four surrounding towns raided Terebesi’s Easton home in a drug probe.
Instead of knocking at the door and announcing they had a warrant, police threw stun grenades into the house, according to Gary Mastronardi, Terebesi’s lawyer, who is a former member of the FBI.
“What they did was outrageous, plain and simple,” Mastronardi said. “My client and his guest were sitting in the house, watching TV. There was no reason to bust through the door with grenades. The Fourth Amendment rule goes back to Revolutionary War days. Law enforcement has to announce what they are doing before executing a search warrant.”
The May 18, 2008, lethal police raid was triggered by a tip from an exotic dancer who reported seeing drug activity there, court documents disclosed. Police first surrounded and then burst into the Dogwood Drive home, with many officers dressed in full black uniforms with Kevlar vests and helmets, and deploying flashbang grenades used to disorient and distract the occupants.
Upon entry, police were met by the homeowner, Terebesi, who was then 42, and Terebesi’s friend, 33-year-old Gonzalo Guizan of Norwalk, who allegedly charged, “physically encountering two police officers,” according to the report from the state police.
Monroe Officer Michael Sweeney fatally shot Guizan, and Terebesi said he was injured when police pinned him to the floor. The office of the chief state medical examiner determined that Guizan died of multiple gunshot wounds and listed the death as a homicide.
Guizan, Terebesi and two officers involved in the confrontation were taken by EMS to area hospitals. Guizan was pronounced dead upon arrival. The three others were all treated for non-life threatening injuries and released.
A state prosecutor ruled Sweeney’s use of force was appropriate. During the subsequent search of the house, no weapons were discovered, according to John Solomon, who was Easton police chief at the time and has since retired.
Police Chief James Candee, who was captain when the raid took place and was at the scene, is a named defendant, along with former Easton officer Christopher Barton.
Candee, who is set to retire July 1, could not immediately be reached for comment. Easton First Selectman Adam Dunsby said he could not comment on continuing litigation.
The towns of Easton, Monroe and Trumbull settled a lawsuit with Guizan’s family for $3.5 million.
“While the defendants, police departments and officers from Darien, Easton, Trumbull, Monroe, and Wilton maintain they were not responsible for the unfortunate death of Mr. Guizan, the insurers for the defendants, who will bear the full cost of the settlement, believed that it was best to resolve the matter rather than incur further attorneys’ fees, which were anticipated to be significant,” said Thomas A. Herrmann, Easton first selectman at the time of the incident, of the settlement.
The search warrant the SWERT team acted on that day was a valid one, Catherine S. Nietzel of Ryan Ryan Deluca LLP of Stamford, the attorney representing the town of Easton, said around the time of the Guizan settlement.
Several calls made to Nietzel at her Stamford law office for comment on the high court’s April 20 ruling were not returned.
“The way the police executed the warrant left a lot to be desired,” Mastronardi said. “They treated my client and his guest like enemy combatants rather than U.S. citizens.”
The defendant police officers claimed immunity, but the 2nd Circuit and Supreme Court ruled that there were more questions that a jury, not a judge, should decide, Mastronardi said.
“If the plaintiff proves the facts he claims he can prove, then they would not be qualified to prove immunity,” he said. “We had to come forward with evidence to show that there were questions for a jury to decide, not a judge, and the court agreed with us.”
The defendants appealed to the 2nd Circuit, and the Supreme Court, but they did not prevail.
“We’ve been waiting a long time for this,” Mastronardi said. “We are back to square one.”
He said he expects conferencing to begin soon for the upcoming trial.