FRESNO, Calif. (CN) — A lawsuit accusing the Fresno police of routinely mocking domestic violence victims will continue, after a judge on Friday denied the city’s attempt to squash a wrongful death case.
Despite clear signs of foul play, a father says Fresno police officers ignored his daughter’s plea for help during a domestic violence call and instead of arresting the abusive boyfriend, blamed her for “choosing the wrong partner.” Two days later police found Lauren Sampson in her Fresno apartment, dead from a gunshot wound to the head after another drunken encounter with her boyfriend Michael Guzman.
U.S. District Judge Dale Drozd found the equal protection case is strong enough to proceed, citing the strength of the father’s argument that the department has a disturbing pattern of ignoring abused women.
“Plaintiff’s allegations that defendant officers made misogynistic comments to and about the decedent are a sufficient basis, if proven, upon which to reasonably infer the Fresno Police Department had a custom or practice of denying female domestic violence victims equal police protection because of animus toward their gender,” Drozd said in a ruling issued Friday. “That is all that is required.”
The complaint stems from a drunken incident between the former couple on Jan. 18, 2018, in which a neighbor called the police after seeing a woman wandering around the apartment complex. Despite noticing blood on Sampson’s face and clothing and damage to the apartment, the responding officers did not arrest Guzman or confiscate a loaded gun.
Just two days later, police responded to another call at the apartment and found Sampson dead and Guzman alive but with gunshot wounds. Investigators later determined Sampson’s death was an attempted murder/suicide.
According to the complaint originally filed in state court, the officers violated the law by not offering or directing Sampson on how to obtain an emergency protective order. Even worse, the father claims the officers mocked Sampson after she was dead by calling her a “drunk” and “white trash” during the investigation.
“Moreover, at a meeting between the officers, the private investigators, and the decedent’s family, plaintiff alleges that Sgt. Benson and Detective Ledbetter commented that ‘Lauren learned a difficult lesson about choosing the wrong partner.’” the complaint states.
Though the judge noted the complaint lacked “specificity” and was “difficult to sift through,” he allowed equal protection and liability claims to survive against the city and three individual officers.
Defendants’ private counsel with Manning & Kass Ellrod Ramirez Trester LLP of Los Angeles did not return an email request Friday afternoon.
While investigators deemed Sampson died by suicide, a nonprofit committed to fighting domestic violence says many questions remain.
After reviewing the police and witness reports, Alliance for Hope International said while the cause of death is uncertain, Fresno police broke the law by not arresting Guzman.
“It is our unanimous conclusion that the Fresno Police Department committed misconduct in the handling of Lauren Sampson’s domestic violence incident on Jan. 18, 2018,” the group said in its report. “The mishandling of this incident ultimately resulted in the death of Lauren Sampson. If the Fresno Police Department patrol officers had done their job properly, Michael Guzman would have been in jail or facing domestic violence prosecution and the firearm in Lauren Sampson’s apartment would have been impounded at the Fresno Police Department on Jan. 19 or 20.”
In the end Judge Drozd did side with the city and officers in part by granting their motion to dismiss due process and deprivation of rights to familial association. The Barack Obama appointee did however give the defendants 30 days to amend the dismissed claims.
Plaintiff’s attorney Kevin Little said he and the Sampson family are happy Drozd allowed the case to proceed.
“The district court recognized that civil rights law protects victims of domestic violence and requires law enforcement to provide women with protection,” the Fresno-based attorney said.
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