Alameda police unable to skirt multiple claims ahead of Mario Gonzalez asphyxiation death trial | Courthouse News Service
Tuesday, November 28, 2023
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Alameda police unable to skirt multiple claims ahead of Mario Gonzalez asphyxiation death trial

Alameda police officers face a trial over multiple claims from Gonzalez's family that they violated civil laws when they held him down during an arrest until he was unresponsive and later died.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Ahead of a trial set for November, a federal judge upheld some claims against Alameda police officers named in Mario Gonzalez’s family’s civil rights suit — saying they displayed “reckless disregard” in Gonzalez’s death in 2021.

Gonzalez died on April 19, 2021, after three Alameda police officers detained him at Scout Park because they claimed he was drunk and was a danger to himself. Body camera footage shows two Alameda police officers, Eric McKinley and James Fisher, placing their weight on Gonzalez for more than five minutes while he was handcuffed in a prone position, asphyxiating him.

Gonzalez’s attorneys claim his civil rights were violated and his detainment was unconstitutional since he had not committed any crime. The complaint was filed by Gonzalez’s family on behalf of his seven-year-old son. Alameda police officers McKinley, Fisher, and Cameron Leahy are named defendants in the suit, as well as then-interim Police Chief Randy Fenn.

U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu heard claims from both parties on the motions for partial summary judgment in a hearing in federal court in August. 

In her 54-page order filed Friday, Ryu wrapped up a separate action by Gonzales’s mother, Edith Arenales. Ryu dismissed Arenales’ claim that the officers involved showed that they lacked training in adequate procedures, and closed her case.

But in the main litigation against the city of Alameda, the judge denied multiple motions for summary judgment on the remaining claims, though she did grant Alameda’s motions for partial summary judgment on all Fourteenth Amendment claims.

Ryu said that the city gave no argument for why Gonzalez was lawfully detained for possible theft after investigation of that offense had ceased, and denied summary judgment on that claim. She also denied the motion to toss the claim of unlawful detention, finding there was conflicting evidence of whether Gonzalez was coherent or could care for his own safety. 

On those grounds, she also denied tossing the claim for unlawful arrest. 

Ryu spent the bulk of the order considering the evidence behind the claims about the officers' conduct when restraining Gonzalez until he became unresponsive and later died. 

The judge noted how the officers applied force, holding down Gonzalez’s legs and upper body. She also recounted that Gonzalez ended up lying face down on his stomach with Fisher resting his chest on Gonzalez’s back and McKinley straddling Gonzalez’s hips, and both officers decided to “keep him pinned down” for nearly four minutes after he was handcuffed until Gonzalez became unresponsive.

Acknowledging the dispute about the cause of Gonzalez’s death — with evidence that he died from restraint asphyxiation and suffered blunt force trauma on his back — Ryu said, “A reasonable jury could conclude that the force the officers used to keep Mr. Gonzalez in a prone position while he was lying on the ground constituted lethal force.”

She said the officers showed they did not suspect that Gonzalez had committed a violent offense and posed little or no immediate threat to the officers’ safety. The judge denied the defendants’ motion on that claim. A jury, Ryu said, "could infer that the officers acted with reckless disregard."

She also denied summary judgment on the negligence, assault and battery and false arrest and imprisonment claims.

However, Ryu said the plaintiffs gave no proof that current law was established at the time of Gonzalez’s detention and arrest to find that the officers violated the Fourteenth Amendment familial association rights by using force on Gonzalez. She then granted McKinley, Fisher, and Leahy qualified immunity on the Fourteenth Amendment claims. 

In their motion for partial summary judgment and in the August hearing, the city had argued that a purpose to harm standard applied in this case, saying that the arrest was a “rapidly evolving” situation where the three officers never had a chance to think.

But Michael Haddad, an attorney for Gonzalez’s family, said that determining purpose to harm should be up to a jury and that the deliberate difference standard could be applied to the case because the officers consciously decided to detain and arrest Gonzalez after deliberating if they had probable cause.

He said without legitimate reason for Gonzalez to be detained once officers confirmed there was no theft from the nearby Walgreens, the entire arrest — not just the officer’s use of force — was illegal. It was also a deliberate decision for the officers to use their weight to restrain Gonzalez after he was handcuffed on the ground, Haddad added. 

Attorneys for both parties did not respond to requests for comment before press time.

The trial on the remaining claims is set to begin Nov. 6.

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Categories / Civil Rights, Courts, Law

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