St. Paul settles use-of-force suit filed in ramp arrests

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG
  • Star Tribune
  • February 17, 2012 - 6:28 AM

The St. Paul City Council approved a $90,000 settlement to be divided by two men who filed a federal lawsuit in October alleging excessive use of force by police.

The agreement, reached earlier this month and approved by the council Wednesday, does not assign any liability in last summer's incident.

Craig R. Spelbrink and Robert G. Geistfeld, both 29, said they had been celebrating a friend's birthday at the Eagle Street Grille, and allege that they were assaulted on their way home.

"It was very upsetting and disconcerting for them to know that these public officials, who they are supposed to trust, would abuse their power," said their attorney, Jeff Storms.

City Attorney Sara Grewing said the city considered legal costs and time commitment in deciding to settle.

"We are very proud of the work our police officers do," Grewing said. "They work in dangerous situations and they have to make decisions on a moment-to-moment case that we are not privy to."

According to the suit: Spelbrink and Geistfeld left the establishment about 12:30 a.m. July 24. The men and some friends walked to the Smith Avenue Parking Ramp. They were planning to get some items from a friend's car and take a cab to Geistfeld's house because they had been drinking.

Spelbrink fell behind the group and entered the ramp after his friends. He ended up on the wrong floor and was walking down the stairs when he was approached by St. Paul police officers Matthew Sweeney and David Stokes. Sweeney pushed Spelbrink onto his back, according to the suit.

Geistfeld yelled to Spelbrink to tell him that the friends were on the second floor. That's when Sweeney ran up the stairs toward Geistfeld, the suit said.

According to the suit: Stokes "pounced" on Spelbrink and struck him on the left side of his face, causing a craniofacial injury, swelling and bruising. Sweeney grabbed Geistfeld by the neck and arm and threw him onto the floor.

Spelbrink and Geistfeld were handcuffed. Spelbrink was taken to the county detox center and detained for 25 hours. Neither of the men were charged.

Police reports written by Stokes and Sweeney, as provided by Storms, indicate that a witness had informed the officers that a man in a red shirt had robbed a man in a white shirt. Spelbrink was wearing a red shirt that night.

"After things settled down we were able to determine the two males were friends who were heavily intoxicated and were 'play fighting,'" one report said.

The officers noted that Spelbrink resisted orders to get on the ground and tried to break free. Geistfeld looked like he was "thinking of either running or fighting with me," Sweeney wrote.

Storms said surveillance footage support his clients' claims that they weren't doing anything to raise suspicion.

Grewing would not comment on the footage but said, "It's three minutes. There's no sound. It tells one side of the story."

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib

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