Several witnesses who called 911 thought they were seeing a violent domestic assault unfolding on a quiet street in Milton, not an arrest.
“I don’t know if he’s a real police officer. He’s pulling a woman out of a car. He’s beating her,” one woman says.
Another caller tells the operator he’s watching a man “absolutely beating the [expletive] out of a woman.”
It was a June afternoon in 2007 and the man yelling at a woman inside a Jeep Cherokee was Massachusetts State Police Trooper R. Bradford Porter, a former Navy SEAL who lived nearby and was not in uniform, according to court records. Porter smashed her window with a flashlight, unlocked her door, and pulled her into the street while she struggled, according to the records.
A federal jury last week found Porter had probable cause to arrest Beth E. Shea of Milton, now 52, but used excessive force and engaged in malicious prosecution when he accused her of reckless driving, speeding, resisting arrest, and using her vehicle as a deadly weapon.
The jury awarded Shea $300,000 in damages last Tuesday in a long-fought case spotlighting the violent altercation between Porter, who is in his 40s now, and the former securities trader who said she was terrified of the enraged man wearing a polo shirt and khaki pants, and did not believe he was a police officer as he claimed to be.
Shea told the court that Porter used obscenities as he pounded on her car window and declared, “You’re mine” while she called local police on her cellphone and kept her doors locked.
The jury of six women and three men heard the case in the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse for six days and deliberated for about eight hours over two days. The jury did not award punitive damages.
“Beth Shea is grateful that after eight years, a jury of her peers has vindicated her and found that Porter’s conduct, violence, and threats of violence were unlawful,” her attorney, Richard Goren, said in a prepared statement Friday.
The trooper’s attorney, Joseph P. Kittredge, said in a brief interview Friday that the arrest was lawful and that Porter may appeal.
“Ms. Shea drove recklessly at somebody in Milton, almost crashing her car into a woman, which was witnessed by Trooper Porter, and he then did his lawful duty,” Kittredge said.
This was the second time a federal jury had heard the case. The first jury also found Porter engaged in a malicious prosecution of Shea but said the trooper did not use excessive force. Judge F. Dennis Saylor threw out that verdict and an award of $60,000, ordering a new trial.
Porter’s attorney unsuccessfully asked Saylor to recuse himself from the second trial, saying the judge was biased. In a motion, Kittredge quoted the judge as saying during a sidebar in the first trial that he “considered this case the strongest civil rights case he had ever seen.”
The Norfolk district attorney’s office dropped all charges against Shea four months after her arrest, when she was held in custody several hours before she posted $5,000 bail. Photos of abrasions to her body were introduced as evidence as part of the lawsuit.
In a court filing dismissing the case, the DA’s office said the trooper “acted in good faith” when he arrested Shea, but the office decided against prosecuting her because unnamed witnesses contradicted the trooper’s allegations.
“A thorough investigation by local law enforcement brought to light evidence, through percipient witness statements, that would contradict the original assertions of the arresting officer,” Assistant District Attorney Michael C. Connolly told the court.
If the verdict stands, taxpayers will pay the $300,000 award. As a trooper, Porter is indemnified for civil rights violations up to $1 million. Use of excessive force is considered such a violation.
The tense encounter began when the trooper’s baby-sitter, Tracy Gorfinkle, said she saw Shea driving too fast down Centre Lane in Milton and motioned for her to slow down. Shea told the court she thought Gorfinkle was motioning for help, so she pulled over toward her and stopped.
Porter, who was standing on the sidewalk with his 15-month-old son nearby, wrote in his arrest report: “It appeared as if Ms. Shea was attempting to strike Ms. Gorfinkle with the Jeep.”
Porter, whose attorney said he served overseas in the military and joined the State Police in 2005, went over to Shea’s vehicle and told her to lower her window. His badge and gun were “plainly visible on my belt,” Porter wrote.
Shea told him she was calling the police.
“I am the [expletive] police,” Porter replied, according to Shea.
In a recording of her call to local authorities, Shea is distraught and mostly unintelligible while a male voice can be heard yelling, “Get out of the car.”
Unable to persuade Shea to lower her window, Porter left her and went into his house to get the keys to his cruiser, he said in his report. She drove away, looking for a street sign so she could give local police her location, she testified.
Porter, who estimated that Shea had been going more than 40 miles per hour in a 30 mile per hour zone, pulled up behind her in his cruiser with lights flashing and siren sounding. When Shea again refused to lower her window, Porter pounded with his fist and cracked the glass, according to Shea, who did not budge.
Porter then returned to his cruiser to get a flashlight.
“When Ms. Shea again refused my request, I broke the Jeep’s driver side window with the flashlight. With the hole created in the window, I was able to reach into the Jeep and unlock the driver’s side door. Ms. Shea resisted my attempts to remove her from the Jeep by pulling her arms away, he wrote in his report.
Shea’s attorneys, Goren and Ryan D. Sullivan, told the jury that Shea’s encounter with Porter derailed her life.
She suffers chronic post-traumatic stress disorder and lost her job in the high-pressure world of securities trading because she could not concentrate, her attorneys told the court. Once earning more than $400,000 a year, she now makes $13 an hour as an administrative assistant at a veterinary hospital.
Shea, who is white, can relate “in small part,” her lawyer said, to Sandra Bland, a black woman whose encounter with a white police officer in Texas during a traffic stop made international headlines recently. When Bland refused the officer’s request to put out her cigarette, he ordered her out of her car and threatened her with his stun gun. Bland, 28, was found hanged in her jail cell and an investigation into her death is underway.
“While the jury’s award of damages will not make her whole, Beth wants R. Bradford Porter to acknowledge his responsibility for his actions and also for the Massachusetts State Police to re-examine both the June 5, 2007 incident and its subsequent internal investigation,” Goren’s statement said.
She paid for years of litigation out of concern for other women, he said.
“Beth is concerned that if she does not speak out, some other woman, alone in her car, may suffer as she has,” he said.
J.M. Lawrence can be reached at email@example.com.