City Can’t Sidestep Suit Over Man Killed by Cops

     OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – Napa must face wrongful-death claims after a man was shot in the back of the head while unarmed and possibly handcuffed, a federal judge ruled.
     Police officers had responded to the home of Richard Poccia on Nov. 28, 2010, when the 60-year-old nurse was in a state of mental health distress, his family claims.
     Though Poccia told police on the phone that he would come out of his house unarmed, Napa escalated the situation by launching a “full-scale SWAT action,” according to the complaint from his widow, Samanda Dorger, and daughter, Gabrielle Poccia.
     Officers allegedly shouted conflicting directions while pointing their guns at 60-year-old nurse. After Officer Brad Baker stunned Poccia with a Taser gun, Officer Nick Dalessi shot Poccia at close range in the back of the head with an assault rifle, according to the complaint.
     One witness allegedly says that Dalessi fired after Poccia was already in handcuffs.
     Sgt. Amy Hunter had assured Poccia that if he came out of his house, officers could make sure he was all right and he would not be arrested, according to the complaint.
     Poccia agreed to come out of the house unarmed with no jacket on and his shirt tucked in to demonstrate that he did not have a weapon.
     U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez-Rogers refused to dismiss a Monell claim against Napa on Friday. The doctrine takes its name from Monell v. NYC Department of Social Services, a 1978 Supreme Court case that first established local government accountability for unconstitutional acts.
     Though Napa claims that the complaint insufficiently alleges a policy or longstanding custom that would give rise to Monell liability, Rogers concluded otherwise.
     The second amended complaint notes “a policy of failing to engage mental health workers in police responses to crisis situations concerning individuals in need of mental health assistance” and “policies of allowing its officers to use excessive and lethal force.”
     Dorger and her daughter support their claims with a grand jury report that allegedly documents how Napa relies exclusively on police officers to handle situations involving mental health crises, according to the ruling.
     In addition to the lack of reliance on crisis workers, the family also claims that Napa lets its officers use excessive force.
     “The facts alleged state a plausible basis for finding that the city knew of the need for training with respect to excessive force and handling crisis situations involving persons with mental health problems,” Rogers wrote. “They sufficiently state a basis for finding that the city was aware of and deliberately indifferent to the need for such training.
     “Moreover, plaintiffs’ allegations that officers failed to follow an organized plan of response or to obey instructions regarding use of deadly force supports a failure to train theory.”
     Napa says the officers may simply have not followed their training, but Rogers said it is still plausible that the family can show such training never occurred.
     Since the family claims that Napa delayed a serious investigation after Poccia’s death, they may also be able to show that the city ratified the improper behavior of its officers, according to the ruling.
     Rogers also refused to dismiss claims of negligence and wrongful death against Napa, as well as a claim under the Bane Act, a California hate-crime law.
     The ruling concludes with a refusal to dismiss the claim for punitive damages.
     Poccia’s wife and daughter are represented by Michael Kelly of Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Echeverria in San Francisco.
     Napa is a defendant along with officers Baker and Dalessi. They are represented by Gregory Mellon Fox of Bertrand Fox & Elliot, also in San Francisco.

%d bloggers like this: