Victim of police misconduct and excessive force sues seeking damages and changes to Sonoma County’s policies designed to "hide police misconduct, brutality and racism"
An amended complaint has been filed in a federal civil rights lawsuit against the County of Sonoma, Town of Windsor, Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essex, and individual police officers following what attorneys described as "excessive and deadly force" against a Black man, resulting in broken teeth, lacerations and the victim being rendered unconscious, according to attorneys at Hagens Berman.
The lawsuit, originally filed on June 24, 2020 in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California demands monetary damages, as well as injunctive relief to alter Sonoma County’s illegal policies with respect to the release of police body camera video footage, as well as unconstitutional policies and practices condoning the excessive use of force and false arrests to insulate officers and the sheriff from liability.
"In response to our client’s lawsuit highlighting his brazen mistreatment, the Sonoma County sheriff cried that the complaint lacked evidence, so we’ve made sure to leave no doubt: the Sonoma County sheriff’s office has been complicit both in our client’s case of police brutality and misconduct, and in a history of similar instances," said Hagens Berman partner Reed Kathrein.
"The Sonoma sheriff got exactly what he asked for: evidence," Kathrein added. "It has never been more clear that what’s happening in Sonoma must stop. It is our hope that along with the community’s voices and existing efforts, we will push for true reform."
The lawsuit follows the excessive use of deadly force during a welfare check, false arrest and imprisonment of La’Marcus McDonald, a 34-year-old Black man. According to the complaint, on July 9, 2019, the Windsor Police Department responded to a welfare check of Mr. McDonald, who was sleeping in a legally parked vehicle. Police officers detained Mr. McDonald and used "excessive and deadly force by slamming Plaintiff head first into the ground while holding his right arm, breaking off Plaintiff’s two front teeth, knocking out a third, causing bleeding from the mouth, facial and arm lacerations, and rendering him unconscious," the complaint reads. Officers unlawfully arrested Mr. McDonald, filed a false police report and falsely imprisoned him, with the cooperation of supervisors.
"Stay alive! Then prove your conduct was proper."
The amended complaint lays out, in great detail, facts showing the Sonoma sheriff’s knowledge and acquiesce in the unconstitutional customs, practices and policies that led to the unreasonable use of force and false arrest that led to Mr. McDonald’s injuries.
For example, the Sonoma County sheriff’s office trains its officers to use a "survivor’s mindset," according to its official training policy, in which it is stated it is "better them than you," who gets injured, and that officers should act first and then consider justifying their actions. "Stay alive! Then prove your conduct was proper," the lawsuit quotes from the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office’s Arrest/Control training policy.
"We’ve included the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office’s Arrest/Control training policy attached as an exhibit in our complaint because its core message is utterly backwards," Kathrein said. "Law enforcement officers are hired to serve and protect, not survive by any means necessary and justify their conduct after."
The amended complaint also recites the long history of community involvement in attempting to get reform of the Sheriff’s office in light of the large number of police killings over time.
Finally, the amended complaint brings front and center the Sheriff’s Office refusal to provide any transparency as to the unreasonable use of force and other police misconduct, thereby keeping this information hidden from the public, according to attorneys.
The suit accuses defendants of violating the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, as well as California’s Constitution and common law. Sonoma County and the Sheriff’s office refuse to release the body camera footage to Mr. McDonald, despite a new California statute (Cal. Gov. Code § 6254(f)(4)), requiring the release of such video within 45 days where use of force causes death or great bodily harm.
The Sonoma Sheriff takes the position that a concussion and the loss of three front teeth does not constitute great bodily harm, which in turn allows them to not report the incident to the California Department of Justice, as required by California law (Cal. Gov. Code § 12525.2(d)) and conceal the Sheriff’s Office wrongdoing. The sheriff still refuses to turn over the body camera footage despite claiming his officers did nothing wrong.
Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP is a national class-action and complex litigation law firm with nine offices across the country, fighting for the rights of consumers, whistleblowers, employees, investors and others. The firm’s tenacious drive for plaintiffs’ rights has earned it numerous national accolades, awards and titles of "Most Feared Plaintiff’s Firm," and MVPs and Trailblazers of class-action law. More about the law firm and its successes can be found at hbsslaw.com. Follow the firm for updates and news at @ClassActionLaw.