New Orleans student sues police over beating


By Susan Finch
Newhouse News Service

NEW ORLEANS — A Tulane University law student says his night out with friends ended with a vicious beating by an angry cab driver, as a New Orleans policeman looked on, after he couldn't pay the fare.

Rene Rocha III, now in his second year of law studies, made the claims in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed recently against the city, the New Orleans Police Department, Police Superintendent Warren Riley and the cab driver and police officer allegedly involved in the beating.

"The city of New Orleans has not been served with the suit and, as a result, is unable to comment at this time," city spokesman James Ross said.

Rocha's attorney, Daniel Abel, said the lawsuit is not being served on the defendants until after he receives information that will reveal the identities of the driver and the police officer.

Abel said he hopes to identify the cab driver and the company he was working for from surveillance tapes at a bank ATM where the driver took Rocha to get cash to pay the fare.

NOPD dispatch records should reflect the name of the officer sent out to investigate the fare dispute after the cabbie called police that morning, Abel said.

The lawsuit describes Rocha's version of the events of June 20, when he went to the French Quarter with friends to attend a concert, and early the next morning, when he ended up bleeding and unconscious on the sidewalk a block from his apartment near Tulane's campus.

Rocha, 23, said doctors removed a rock that was lodged in the right side of his forehead and told him he was lucky not to have suffered brain damage from the beating. Doctors also said fractures in the bones around his left eye would probably require reconstructive surgery, Rocha said.

Based on the lawsuit, here is Rocha's account of what happened:

After the concert, Rocha went with two friends to a bar on Bourbon Street, but subsequently told them he was tired and would take a taxi home.

Between 2:30 a.m. and 4:30 a.m., Rocha flagged down a cab and told the driver to take him to his home on Broadway.

As the cab neared his home, Rocha pulled out his wallet to pay the fare, by then more than $15, only to discover he had just $3.

Apologizing, Rocha offered to pay the fare with a credit card, as he had done with other taxi companies, but the driver, cursing, rejected both that idea and Rocha's offer to pay with a personal check.

The driver then insisted they go to an ATM, but Rocha said he didn't have his debit card and wasn't sure he could use his credit cards to get cash. "No (expletive) check, we're going to an ATM, and you better (expletive) pray you can get money out!" the irate driver responded.

Rocha then directed the driver to a bank, where he made two unsuccessful attempts using credit cards to get cash from its ATM.

Rocha then asked the cab driver to drive back to his apartment and let him pay with a personal check or see if his roommates had cash he could use to pay the fare. But as the cab neared Rocha's home, the driver said, `The meter's already up to $23. I'm calling the (expletive) cops."'

Frightened by the driver's demeanor, Rocha got out of the moving taxi as it neared his apartment and in the process hurt his knee. Limping toward the driver, Rocha insisted he call the police, and the driver complied.

Shortly thereafter, an NOPD officer arrived in a marked car and questioned Rocha, who assured him he intended to pay the driver. The officer allowed Rocha to go into his house to search for cash.

But when Rocha returned a few minutes later saying he found no money there, the officer gave the law student "the option of going to jail or allowing the cab driver to `beat the fare out of him."'

After Rocha, concerned about his finances and future legal career, elected not to go to jail, the policeman "supervised" as the driver repeatedly beat Rocha with his fists. Then the officer let the cab driver borrow his billy club and watched as he used it to beat Rocha further.

The beating stopped after Rocha begged the police officer to end it, and the officer told the driver it was time to stop. As he walked away, the cabbie kicked Rocha in the side of the face. Then he and the policeman drove off in their respective cars.

Copyright 2008 Newhouse News Service

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